Video: Behind the Book with Douglas A. Hicks

A new book by leadership studies scholar Douglas A. Hicks provides a framework for people to consider anew how they think about money and the ways in which consumer choices have an impact on everything from politics and public policymaking to the environment and their individual lives.  

In Money Enough: Everyday Practices for Living Faithfully in the Global Economy, published this month by Jossey-Bass, the scholar of religion and economics cites voices ranging from Aristotle to Bono and Adam Smith to George W. Bush. He shares both personal anecdotes and new research that make for a compelling case: we need to re-examine how we think about money, both individually and as a society.

In light of the recent economic crisis, there could hardly be a better time than now.  

The recent economic crisis has forced people to rethink both personal and global economic practices. In your new book, Money Enough: Everyday Practices for Living Faithfully in the Global Economy, you maintain that rethinking our personal everyday economic practices can make an enormous difference and help shape the market in a positive way. Can you explain?    

The global economy is so large and impersonal that it is too easy for people to feel that they have little economic control over their lives. Many forces are indeed far beyond our control, but I discuss everyday practices – from the work that we do, to our recreational choices, to aligning our values with our spending and giving patterns – in which we can shape the kind of life that we lead. Especially when we coordinate our actions with other people, groups and organizations, our actions can reverberate into public policy and the shape of the market.

You talk about the challenges of living ethically when it comes to finances. What are some of the challenges, and what are some of the practices you outline?

One main challenge is that the culture that surrounds us – the air we breathe – is of a consumer society. “Of course we need fine clothing and a fancy car to be happy”: No one needs to tell us that directly, because it is in the ads that we see and hear every day. So one of the key practices I outline is discerning our desires – that is, learning to understand what messages we are receiving and how they appeal to our own wants and needs. We cannot shut off market signals, but we can be conscious of them in ways that help us to shape our behavior. Another practice is aligning our commitments with some “center of value.” The predominant worldview today is what I call “econo-centrism,” and I advocate, instead, for a “theo-centrism,” in which people of faith align their economic practices with their theological commitments—such as by seeing work as a calling, by understanding creation as ours to care for, by establishing just public policies, and by sharing generously with our neighbors.

How does this idea of living ethically with our finances – and your work in this area – relate to leadership studies?

First, leaders are stewards of remarkable resources. The governor of Virginia yesterday announced detailed plans to cut the state budget by $2 billion dollars! His economic choices matter a lot, and so do those of the legislators and administrators who also play a role in the budgeting process. And, leaders shape the culture and can set agendas – whether overtly financial or “merely” symbolic – so the ways they talk about finances, and about moral obligations, have tremendous impacts on their followers. I hope leaders – from churches and civic organizations to businesses and government – will read the book and discuss it within their communities.

How does – or should – this change how we think about things like health care and education?

Health care and education are vital parts of living a full and good life. They are valuable in themselves, and they are also means to other important ends. They make other pursuits possible – including securing and enjoying a good job. Money has an interesting role here, too, because adequate finances at the personal and the public level are necessary, but not sufficient, elements for achieving both good health care and good education.

In the book you tell a story about backpacking across Europe as a student. You took so much stuff with you that the load became too heavy to carry. You were weighed down both physically and mentally by your possessions. As a culture of consumers do you think we’re starting to realize that we are weighed down by our material possessions? 

I do think so. Yet, until the recent economic downturn, it’s not clear that this realization was having any impact on overall consumption. There are various groups – some are faith-based while others are not – that are resisting excessive consumerism by opting out of the market. But I believe we should not simply reject the market – how would you do that, anyway? We must start looking at how economic realities force us to be consumers, such as computers, cars and phones designed to become obsolete in a limited number of years, so that we have to buy new ones.

In the book you say that we should think of shopping as a moral activity. In what sense?

First, because it can involve human relationships – with sellers: those who made the product, those who sell or deliver it, and so on. Often, of course, these people are hidden to us. But shopping is a moral activity because where our dollars go, our values go. Or, stated differently, our money gives us power. I talk, for instance, about college students who have used their influence and buying power to change working conditions for laborers of shoes and apparel. I emphasize a kind of justice that involves exchanges – commutative justice – that should guide how we shop.

It seems like religious leaders have been slow to help us understand the ethical dimensions of the economic crisis…

Religious leaders are not economists or policymakers, and given the complexity of this crisis, most have been careful not to speak about things beyond their area of technical expertise. Others have roundly condemned greed in the market. In the book I emphasize the involvement or complicity that most of us have in the crisis. 

What advice do you have for people who want to help when there is a crisis such as the one in Haiti but feel overwhelmed or are not sure how much to give?  

I have no special expertise or advice to give on which charities to support. The challenge that I see, given the massive scope of this particular disaster, is to keep our moral and political imaginations focused on the rebuilding effort for months and years to come. I discuss our obligations, in this global economy, to our global neighbors. The Haiti case is certainly a case in point for thinking about just rebuilding and development policies, and not merely band-aid emergency support – as much as that is needed in the immediate term.