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How much is ‘enough?’

Charlemont Forum discusses economic equality, Bible

CHARLEMONT — Economist Barry Shelley believes the Bible has a lot to teach us about economic development and about how “scarcity thinking” drives people to compete — rather than work together — to share common goals and resources.

“Biblical stories may have some relevance to local and national politics,” Shelley told the audience at this week’s Charlemont Forum. “The Bible is written by people with many perspectives about people trying to live in harmony with each other and with God.”

“The Ten Commandments were an orientation toward living together in community,” said Shelley, who serves as global agriculture and climate change adviser for Oxfam America.

Since the 1970s, Shelley has spent most of his life working as an activist in some of the world’s most impoverished areas, especially in El Salvador.

Trained as an economist, Shelley is also a founding member of the Sabbath Economics Collaborative, a group formed to narrow the gap between the very rich and the masses, starting with the premise that there is enough for everyone if people would consume only what they need.

“Economics is taught with the idea that the free market is a natural condition,” said Shelley. “Sabbath tradition says it is not a natural condition, and Sabbath laws dismantle the structure of inequality. They are built-in restraints against the abuse (of poor people).”

“Property regimes should serve humanity and life — not the other way around,” he said.

Shelley cited the passage from Exodus that says that on the Sabbath, “you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” He said the passage spells out protections for the most vulnerable members of a household, and reflects back to an earlier “call to practice a Sabbath year every seven years.”

According to Shelley, this earlier practice calls on farmers to let their land lie fallow every seven years, to forgive the debts of those unable to pay, to free indentured servants and to give back their land and some additional capital to get started.

He said rules against charging interest for loans was a preventive guideline to prohibit exploitation.

Shelley said the 2008 housing bubble was in large part due to banks lending more money than homeowners could afford to repay, resulting in massive foreclosures. He described this as a predatory relationship between the banks and the aspiring homeowners.

He said the seventh-year Sabbath laws “may have been an effort to correct and prevent some of the destructive elements of property ownership and exploitation.”

Shelley said the freed slaves who left Egypt and traveled the desert for 40 years before returning to Israel had to shake off “the royal mindset” of their Egyptian oppressors and learn “how to live in an alternative society” in which all the resources were shared. When farming was done on commonly held land, he said, it was more egalitarian.

“The risk of poor harvest was shared by the community at large,” he said. But private property ownership could make debtors out of farmers whose crops failed.

Shelley said the word “scarce” is mentioned on the first page of every economics book, and “scarcity means you are only secure if you have enough — you’re always competing.”

He said millions of Americans who get sick cannot take a day off for fear of losing their jobs and in poor countries, international companies and nations such as China are buying up “milllions of acres, displacing people in the process.”

Shelley said there are growing economic movements veering from the scarcity model to more collaborative efforts.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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