Musical Chairs is the perfect metaphor for our economy of individualism

Creating losers by design, and calling it god’s will

Why we can’t look to conservative Christians to take the side of those left standing in the game of musical chairs our society calls success. The ‘prosperity gospel’ is a pernicious manifestation of the Calvinist dogma, that Christ died not for all, but only for the elect. The elect are the successful:

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The distinction between the deserving and undeserving “is absolutely fundamental to understanding lots of policy debates and lots of social problems in this country,” said Mark Rank, a professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis.

America’s secular and spiritual traditions both embody the notion. The American dream is based on the idea that hard work will result in success. Failure is in the hands of individuals, leaving citizens to feel less responsibility to offer help.

The notion of just deserts has deep roots in the Bible, based on the assumption that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked. Though modern medicine and the germ theory of disease have largely severed the link between goodness and health, the nexus with material wealth remains.

The “prosperity gospel,” which asserts that faithful Christians are rewarded with financial success, has been a bedrock of American evangelists from Oral Roberts to Joel Osteen. It is embraced by Paula White, a Florida televangelist known as Mr. Trump’s “spiritual adviser” and one of the clergy members invited to his inauguration.

“Winning to him also equates to good,” Ms. White said of Mr. Trump, “and good equates to God.”

But a humanistic or liberal viewpoint — with the Christian dogma removed — might ask why does our society produce so much financial breakage, where so many are without adequate resources to manage?

Evangelical adherents to the prosperity gospel turned out to be reliable Trump voters on Election Day. A close analysis of poverty statistics over the past half-century, though, shows that two-thirds of all Americans received some kind of income-based benefits over their lifetime, like food stamps, disability payments or Medicaid, Mr. Rank said.

“Are we going to make the argument that all these folks are undeserving?” he said.

Mr. Rank designed a “poverty risk calculator” to illustrate how easy it can be to fall on hard times. Of the five largest risk factors for poverty — age, race, sex, education and marital status — three are out of anyone’s control.

Mr. Rank uses the game of musical chairs to illustrate his point. Looking solely at the difference between winners and losers turns the focus to individual traits: who is faster, pushier or more strategic. Instead, he suggested looking at how the game is structured — that there are fewer chairs than players — and why it is impossible for some people to win.

“Rather than an individual problem, this is a systemic problem,” he said. In the case of the economy, that means shifting attention from who lost to why the system produces so many losers in the first place. (Perhaps because of a shortage of well-paying jobs or insufficient wage growth.)

“That shifts from this idea of the deserving and the undeserving,” he said. “It’s a different framework.”

It’s a wonderfully apt metaphor, since musical chairs is designed to produce losers, because the rules are set up to do so. An much of the focus of modern conservative Christianity is aimed at supporting a musical chairs economic system, and castigating the losers as undeserving and immoral.

Originally published at

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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