The 80% Rule

I spent the previous post critiquing the idea of the “self-made man/woman,” but I should put in a word for the idea.  After all, our decisions, work ethic and efforts count for something.

But how much?

Economists, actually, can figure this out.

An economics book that is interesting and understandable:  I am not making this up.

An economics book that is interesting and understandable: I am not making this up.

According to Branko Milanovic, in a rather interesting (and readable!) little book entitled The Haves and the Have-Nots:  A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality, this is how it works:  take the actual incomes of everyone in the world and compare it to the mean incomes of their countries.  The result of the global analysis that the nation where we were born determines 60% of what we have.  Not only that, but the family one is born into within a given nation counts for an additional 20% of one’s wealth.  (One might be born in Brazil, for instance, but there is a great difference between being born to the household of a professional businessman in Rio de Janeiro verses being born in a two-room shack in a favela – the slums — in Rio).  Furthermore, an undetermined amount of the remaining 20% is due to factors over which one does not have any control (gender, race, chance, etc.).  But somewhere in this remaining 20% of our wealth we find the factors like effort, decisions, and hard work.

The 80% Rule (my term, not Milanovic’s) means that the most of our economic destiny was determined at birth.  (Who knew that economists could be 4-point Calvinists?)

80%.  Really?   Less than 20% of our income is due to what we actually do?  Is that true?

You’d need to read the book to get a full picture (though you probably have to be an economist to figure out if this analysis is flawed), but I find it compelling.  Having lived six years in Kenya and spent time in Jamaica and Brazil (as well as having read a fair amount about the economic history of different societies) it is obvious to me that millions of people (billions, actually) do not have the resources and opportunities that I was born with in the United States.  The gap in income between a middle-class American and the vast majority of people in the world is really a stunning one. The world is not a level playing field.

At first glance, the 80% Rule looks rather discouraging.  Shouldn’t effort count for more than that?  The American Dream – the belief that one can be substantially better off than one’s parents if one just works hard enough – has motivated a lot of people.  It has produced a great deal of inventiveness and encouraged a great deal of hard work.  With that in mind, one might be hesitant to give up on the “Self-Made Man/Woman” myth.   It would be hard to inspire 7th grade boys by telling them that 80% of what they will earn in life is already determined for them (much less try to get them to understand exactly what is meant by that).  What would you say if you were to write inspirational posters for middle school classrooms?   “Something less than 20% of what a person achieves and something less than 20% of what they fail to achieve is a direct result of their own thoughts!”   Or how about, “If you dream it, the law of averages shows you can achieve up to 20% more than your family has now!”   Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

On the other hand, the 80% rule has the potential to help us get a clearer sense God’s purpose for our lives.  Think of the 80% Rule as helping us to shift our perspective from the American Dream to the Parable of the Talents.  (See Matthew 25:14-30).  The master gives out talents in unequal portions to different people in the world.  The point here is not that the amounts are unequal.  Instead, we are to ask what we, as the servants, are to do with the talents we are given.

The talents God gives us refer to a lot more than money.  But let me just stick with the money point a bit longer.  40% of regular church goers in America give nothing to churches, charities or ministries.  The vast majority of the funds that support our churches, non-profits, and ministries come from 10% of regular church-goers.  (Non-church attenders give even less, on average – but that is a different discussion).  Most Americans are stingy, folks.  Tithing 10% of our income should be the bare minimum for American Christians, particularly when we realize that 80% of what we have is really none of our doing.

We also need to work on cultivating a deep sense of stewardship.  I know I need to get a better sense of this.  The 80% rule is merely empirical economic evidence that what we have comes from God and is not “owned” for eternity by us.  We should be ready and willing to listen to God’s call on our lives and put what we have been given to use for God’s purposes.

By the way, donating to the relief efforts for the victims of the Philippines typhoon right now would be a good way to put to use a very small part of what God has given us.  I recommend the Mennonite Central Committee, though there are plenty of other organizations that are active there as well.

Are You a Self-Made Man or Woman? I Know the Answer.


New Picture (1)If you can trust historians, however, my great-great grandfather was a self-made man.  Zopher Case (yes, that was his real name — the nearly-biblical spelling was real, too) received the following treatment in the 1882 History of LaGrange County, Indiana:  “Mr. Case is representative of the self-made man. He began with nothing, at the age of twelve, working for $3.00 per month. By labor and economy, he has acquired one of the largest and finest stock farms in the county, and at present owns 800 acres, having given the remainder to his children.”

But I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t trust historians.

Wait a minute. Don’t trust me when I say you shouldn’t trust historians.

Anyway, my point is that the LaGrange County historian may have gotten the facts right, but the idea of the “self-made man” is a flawed concept.  Zopher Case was not a self-made man.

We Americans sure like the idea.  We have embraced it ever since Benjamin Franklin wrote an autobiography that explained how he accomplished everything through his own wits, hard work and moral character.   And the idea is still alive and well today.  A few years ago I noticed the following inspirational poster on the wall of a middle school:   “Everything a person achieves and everything they fail to achieve is a direct result of their own thoughts.”  There it is.

This idea is flawed because it is based on bad theology and bad theology does not reflect how the world really works.   It is flawed because the “self-made man” completely discounts the idea that God might be at work amidst human activity.

How was God at work in the life of Zopher Case?  What does God have to do with his economic status?   Most American evangelicals would probably try to answer that by looking for characteristics of his spiritual life.  Was Zopher Case inspired by God to work hard?  Did God help him through the tough times?  Did Zopher flourish because he grew in Christian discipleship?

Those are good questions, but I would like to draw our attention to something else.  Consider the birth of Zopher Case, an event that stems from God’s creational activity.

What did Zopher Case do to get himself born in 1816 in Ashtabula County, Ohio, twenty years before he moved to Indiana?  He did not earn that birth through hard work, wits, high moral character, intelligence or “labor and economy.”  Furthermore, had he been born as a black man or an Indian or a woman, his opportunities would have been very different.  While I am sure that ol’ Zopher worked hard, he did not begin with nothing.  He was born with economic, familial and cultural resources that many others did not have.

Who made this man?

Who made this man?

For instance, what if Zopher Case had been born in Suipacha, Argentina in 1816?  (Disclaimer:  I actually do not know a thing about Suipacha except that it is a town outside of Buenos Aires.)  From the colonial era through independence and up to the present, small classes of wealthy elites have owned most of the land in just about every country of Latin America.  One family in Argentina in the 19th century owned 1.6 million acres of prime land – that’s bigger than the state of Delaware.  Another family in Mexico in 1848 owned 16 million acres, a piece of land about the size of South Carolina.  Right after independence, a group of 500 individuals in Argentina owned 21 million acres, which is about the size of Indiana.  If Zopher Case were born in 1816 in Suipacha to a family of modest means, it is very likely that he would have ended his life as a hired hand on a ranch, without any land to his name.  Furthermore, it is likely the same fate would have been true for his son, Riley C. Case, and his son, Riley L. Case, and his son, Riley B. Case and his son, Jay Riley Case.  (Apparently, my family found “Riley” to be a comfortable and reliable name. They must have been spooked by “Zopher.”)

But Zopher Case was born in Ohio and moved to LaGrange County, Indiana when he was twenty.  He was able to buy land there.

I have benefited economically from Zopher’s efforts.  My grandfather grew up on that farm.  The prosperity of the farm and the educational opportunities of LaGrange County (we also often forget that none of us earned or paid for our primary school education) enabled my grandfather to get a college education at Purdue University in 1914.  He used that degree to become a high school principal and then a county extension agent.  When the Depression hit, he not only had a steady job, but extra capital, which he invested – and he continued investing through the 1980s.  When my grandfather passed away in 1988, his estate passed down to my father and aunts.  My parents did not enjoy an especially high income on my father’s salary as a Methodist minister, but they then found themselves with a fair amount of capital.  So when I entered graduate school in 1993, my parents became our banker:  they purchased a house in South Bend that our family moved into.  We were able to make payments to my parents (enjoying generous terms in the deal) even though my graduate school income technically put my family of five below the poverty line.  When we left South Bend six years later, we owned half of the house.  We used the capital from that house to buy the house where we now live in North Canton, Ohio.

Meanwhile, about 174 million people in Latin America make less than $2.50/day.

I have worked hard in my life (well, maybe not so much during those junior high years), but I am still not a self-made man.  Nor was Benjamin Franklin.  Nor are you.  For some mysterious reason, God decided where and when you would be born.

What do we do with that reality?  More on that in a later post.

Are Evangelicals Effective at Dealing with the Poor?

Feel free to chime in on this one.  We are going to try to understand evangelicals better.

This is kind of a funny project for me, since I identify myself as an evangelical.  I go to church with these folks.  And I study these people.  You’d think I’d have this figured out.

Well, this is what I do know: evangelicals are good at evangelism.

Granted, we have all probably run into a zealous evangelical or two somewhere in our life who awkwardly thrust a tract in our face or fired off personal questions about heaven and hell in the first sentence they ever addressed to us.  One might question the effectiveness of evangelistic efforts that make the Christian faith look as inviting as a colonoscopy.

But this has not been evangelicals’ main methodology.  Through a variety of other ways in the past couple of centuries, such as revivalism, evangelicals have been very effective in bringing others into their branch of Christianity.  Though evangelicals did not exist in any clear way in 1700, they now make up about a third of American society.  The vast majority of African Americans who have embraced Christianity in the last two centuries have come by way of evangelical churches.  During the last few decades, evangelical churches have been growing while mainline Protestant groups in the U.S. have been in decline.  In Africa, Asia and Latin America, the growth has been even more dramatic.  Evangelicals, particularly Pentecostals, have grown remarkably in China, South Korea, sub-Saharan Africa, Guatemala, Brazil and many other places.  Say what you will, evangelism has been very effective in these regions.

But let’s return to the question I’m kind of avoiding:  are evangelicals any good at dealing with the poor?

This is a more complicated question.  Here are a few different responses that I have come across:

A)  No.  Evangelicals mostly see the poor as people to be evangelized.  With a few exceptions, like the Sojourners crowd, white American evangelicals through the twentieth century looked with suspicion on anything that sounded like the “social gospel.”  And they looked with deeper suspicion upon any governmental programs aimed at the poor.   This “evangelism-only” impulse carried over into the missionary movement, so that Latino and African Christians in the last few decades have upbraided American evangelical missionaries for promoting a partial gospel that neglected issues of poverty.

B)   Yes.  Even though many evangelicals distanced themselves from social causes in the mid-twentieth century, there has been an upsurge of concern and activity since the 1970s.  Those Latino and African Christians who chided American evangelicals were evangelicals themselves, after all.  And no less of an evangelical icon than Billy Graham came on board with their theological arguments at the 1974 Lausanne Conference.  Since the 1960s, we have seen the growth of agencies like World Vision, Compassion International and Habitat for Humanity – organizations that were all founded by evangelicals and still receive the bulk of their support from evangelicals.  And evangelicals had always formed the backbone of older organizations directed toward the poor, such as the Salvation Army and rescue missions.

C) Not really.  Evangelicals often have good intentions, but their effectiveness is limited by an individualistic approach to poverty.  Thus evangelicals will send relief supplies to victims of earthquakes or hand out soccer balls on short-term mission trips, but these are temporary efforts that do little to address long-term systemic and structural issues of poverty.  Evangelicals need a theology that can address issues such as political inequities, class structures, economic systems and institutional racism.  Because they think individualistically and their theology is individualistic, evangelicals often don’t understand the role that structures and institutions play in poverty.

D)  Somewhat, but more indirectly than directly.  When evangelicalism, particularly Pentecostalism, spreads among the poor of the world, it instills certain behaviors among converts that have economic benefits.  Converts develop habits of self-discipline and are transformed in ways that order is brought to disorderly lives.  Evangelical Christianity provides hope for the future, which encourages and empowers its adherents to persevere through difficult economic situations.

There are more explanations, but that seems like a good place to start.

What do you think?