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Money Must Not Be Worshipped

The former head of the Protestant Church in Germany is known as an outspoken critic on economic policy. He sat down with Martin Eiermann to talk about the resurgence of religion, personal responsibility and the future of economic growth.

The European: You have once cited the Gospel of St. Luke to describe the financial crisis: “To whom much is given, much may be expected. To whom much has been entrusted, much will be expected.” Have we taken these statements seriously enough in the last years?
Huber: I would not generalize that statement. One has to keep in mind that 90 percent of the German economy are medium-sized, owner-operated companies. I have great respect for the responsibility, farsightedness and commitment for sustainable development with which many of them work. And many of these smaller companies depend on the success of large corporations because they act as suppliers. That is why it does not make sense to play off the large companies and the medium-sized economy against each other. The financial sector is a special case. But we should not take the evidence from there and imply a general lack of responsibility of the economy or of actors within the economy. As the Protestant Church, we have said in our position paper that “it is imperative for society” to pursue entrepreneurial actions. From the viewpoint of Christian faith, people have been given gifts and talents. Entrepreneurism is one way to exercise these talents and gift in order to serve the public interest. That is why it was an reduction to consider entrepreneurial acting only under the profit aspect. It is also a question of self-realization and service. I hope that the crisis will lead to greater appreciation of those aspects; that it will correct the lopsided focus on profits. But we are not out of the woods yet.

The European: How can we measure contributions to the common good? Are tax rates an indicator? The size of charitable donations? Or do we need to re-conceptualize how we analyze the economic situation?
Huber: An assessment of the economy must not be based on numbers alone. There is a dimension that touches on a sense of responsibility and social values. There’s the assumption that the economy is shaped by shareholder values: The only thing that mattered was the profit of the shareholder. That assumption is beginning to shift as we realize the importance of other partners – employees, customers, suppliers, society at large – as economic factors. It follows that we need to consider and evaluate the economy also with regard to other aspects: working conditions, sustainability, co-determination of employees and their participation in profits. Let me give you another example from our own work as a Church: We have introduced the “Work Plus” certificate to recognize companies that perserve jobs and treat people fairly. We have developed a mechanism to rate training opportunities, contract clauses or working conditions. And we try to pay attention to corporate social responsibility: what does a company invest in its region or its community? All these factors are lost if we focus on numbers alone.

The European: What is the role of a religious organization within that economic discourse?
Huber: The tradition of the Christian faith contains the distinction between God and money. It is crucial that money is not worshipped, that money is not an end in itself but a means to an end, that God alone is given the honor. We recognize the limits of material goods. We don’t deny their importance, but we try to put it in context. The second point is responsible freedom. We live in a free society. But what is important is that people take responsibility for their decisions, especially if they occupy positions of power. Managers have to be willing to account for their actions. This has practical consequences with regard to the financial markets. We cannot allow companies to take risks at the expense of others, at the expense of customers and borrowers. If they cannot be held accountable, the state has to intervene or losses are passed down to others. That is what happened during the real estate crisis: risky mortgages resulted in foreclosures. There thus has to be a clear connection between risk and liability. And finally, the translation of charity is the task of the church: Solidarity with your neighbor, the task of advocating job opportunities that are oriented towards justice and solidarity.

The European: Freedom and responsibility are abstract concepts. They have always been part of the economic discourse. Adam Smith would reply: Freedom from interference. Responsibility for one’s own fortune.
Huber: It is a too narrow term to understand this responsibility only as a personal form of responsibility. There is a clear religious core in the concept of responsibility. We are accountable for our life to God. And because this is the case we do not only see the responsibility with regard to ourselves but also with regard to our neighbor as an inalienable part of the responsibility.

The European: One idea is to seek a redefinition of the concept of growth. What parameters should be include of we want to see “growth” not only as a numerical increase but as a synonym for progress?
Huber: It is correct that the GDP is not sufficient as an indicator, especially because it does not give any information about the sustainability of economic development or how meaningful it is. We need to pay more attention to the significance that economic goods can have for human interactions. I would not question the idea of growth in general. But we must realize that we must reduce certain trends that contribute to growth as we know it. We must reduce our emissions, for example. That will only be possible if we rethink the idea of growth. Factor Four comes to mind: the idea that we can maintain productivity levels and provide as many goods and services as we do today with a quarter of the energy use. Or take the importance of human well-being. How do you incorporate happiness into a measure of growth? Those are the questions we need to consider.

The European: These ideas have been floating around for some time. Why has so little happened? Is it a question of technological and bureaucratic obstacles or do we simply back imagination? Are we too content with accepting that the current system has no alternatives?
Huber: Change is happening much slower than we want because it is not yet firmly rooted in the economy. We need to further develop our concept of the social market economy in order to achieve a social, sustainable, internationally responsible market economy. Many people still question that approach. They benefit from the current set of arrangements, so there is a large inertia. In the face of these obstacles, technical innovations require considerable commitment and time. Then there is the famous debate to what extend this is state-sponsored and how willing people are to invest in new approaches. All these factors slow down the speed of change. But I am convinced that it will not fail for technological reasons. The interesting argument of the “Factor Four” theory from Ernst-Ulrich Weizäcker and Amory Lovins is that there are no major technical hurdles to drastically reducing our energy consumption.

The European: The church is often accused of losing relevance in the lives of many people. At the same time, ideas such as responsibility and empathy seem to be on the rise. The rational model of the “homo oeconomicus” appears discredited. Is religion returning within the framework of a secular society?
Huber: The philosopher Charles Taylor has written a book on this. It is called “Religion In A Secular Age”. His thesis is that we do not experience a dying of religion, that religion is not becoming irrelevant. But at the same time, secular opinion plays an important part in our modern societies. That won’t change. But we witness the emergence of a radical plurality in which not only different religious convictions want to co-exist but where secular world-views have become important alongside religious values. In such a plurality it is obvious that the Christian churches and theologies need to raise their voices distinctively. If it is correct to assume that the 21st century is the century of freedom, then it is also correct that the Christian understanding of freedom as a gift that has been given to us, a gift that gets renewed in spite of human fallibility and sins, as a gift that therefore needs to be answered for in the relationship to fellow men… – that this understanding of human freedom has a central meaning. It is the continuous task of the Church to make this relevance clear, to make it meaningful in our daily life.

The European: Which hopes do you have for the World Economic Forum? Which decisions need to be made in order to set the course for the coming years?
Huber: We have to make good use of the forum. Thoughtfulness of discussion does not always equal determination of action. But we must not become discouraged with setbacks, such as the climate summit in Copenhagen. We need to undertake new attempts in the direction we discovered to be the right one.

The European: But you don’t expect any concrete proposals?
Huber: I have stated my concrete idea in the model of a social, sustainable and international responsible market economy. The decisions on the restriction of the CO2 emissions and clear regulations of the international financial markets will show if the international community will have the courage to take the necessary steps. The World Economic Forum can set important signals in that direction. I have the urgent hope and expectation that decisive steps are taken. Too little has happened for too long.

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