“A rising tide lifts all boats.” This is one of the strongest statements of faith in the free-market. If those at the top of the economy do better, everyone will benefit. The wealth will “trickle down” from the top. In his book No Rising Tide, the Rev. Joerg Rieger argues that these fundamental assumptions of modern economic theory have not been born out, even in times of prosperity.
Rieger, who is Cook-Wendland Professor of Constructive Theology at United Methodist-related Perkins School of Theology, argues that rather than trickling down, wealth has become increasingly concentrated at the top, with a growing gap between the rich and the poor. Many people are experiencing the recent economic crises as a permanent downturn. The opportunity that this downturn provides is for working and managerial classes to discover common economic interests with one another and develop solidarity with one another.
The goal, says Rieger, is not just a more equitable distribution of wealth, but full participation in the productive process, the right to make a meaningful contribution to society. Additionally, the productive process needs to be rationalized. No Rising Tide makes the argument that in our modern economy production drives consumption. Producers develop new products and then create marketing campaigns to create demand for those products. Thus, production drives demand rather than demand driving production. This calls into question two fundamental assumptions made by many mainline economists: 1) that consumer choice drives economic production and 2) that consumer demand is unlimited. It is necessary to distinguish between needs and wants in economic decision making and to give priority to meeting peoples’ basic needs prior to producing ever new products that then need to be marketed in order to create demand.
Rieger argues that there are connections and parallels between economics and theology that have largely gone unexplored. Economics affects us not just in the pocketbook and in politics, but deep down in our way of viewing the world and God. No Rising Tide seeks to explore these connections and lay out the implications. People tend to approach both religion and economics with a kind of blind faith in what they are told. The result is that the presuppositions of both theology and economics are accepted uncritically. Ultimately the free market becomes an idolatry, that is a rival image of God.
Perhaps one of Reiger’s most valuable contributions in this book is his analysis of the ways theology has been influenced by the presuppositions of free-market economics. These presuppositions result in an approach to working with the poor that assumes that God is absent in the situation until the church arrives with the knowledge and resources to effect positive change in the situation -- a perspective that could be at odds with one of The United Methodist Church's four areas of mission focus, ministry with the poor.
In traditional mission theology, the goal has been to make the poor over into middle-class respectability. It is assumed that God looks like those who are successful and in control. This theology says that God works from the top down, just as wealth trickles from the top down.
Rieger offers a multitude of examples to show that this model does not necessarily conform well with biblical models. In the Bible, God often works through the marginalized, the powerless and the victimized. Rieger maintains that if we are to find God, we must seek God among the powerless and victimized. Rather than a God who imposes the divine will from the top down, God works from the bottom up.
Rieger extends this principle to develop an alternative approach to problem solving. Rather than assuming that those at the top, i.e., “experts,” have a better perspective on “the reality” of the situation, this approach assumes that the people most intimately involved understand the “real” situation and, being under pressure from the situation, know best how to improve it. The assumption of top-down logic is that the interests of the rich reflect the common good. The assumption of the bottom-up approach is that the interests of those who are most under pressure from economic downturn will most likely promote the common good in society.
Rieger is tackling a difficult subject. Economics is not a discipline easily mastered. No Rising Tide offers a thoughtful and informative discussion of the issues confronting us in the contemporary economic situation. Rieger does not offer clear suggestions for resolving the increasing gap between rich and poor, although he points to many alternatives. To offer such clear-cut suggestions would violate the method he proposes in the book, that solutions need to come from the community itself, especially those most directly and adversely affected by permanent economic downturn.