Posts Tagged materialism

Ideal Inequality?

Well, now. Whenever I try to put my finger on the “ideal” for anything—Hollywood award shows, cheeseburger ketchup-to-onion ratios, wealth distribution—I always consult “92% of Americans.”

Speaking of which, Lorie Line is currently tickling the ivories across my sound system, playing some uber-”smooth,” lowest-common-denominator instrumental rendition of “Message in a Bottle.” Not as edgy or as satisfying or as revolutionary as The Police, of course, but—according to those elevator and dentist-office maestros at Muzak—soooo ideal.

It is, I’ll admit, always refreshing when someone who views wealth as wrinkly and static also views us humans as the pre-determined, ready-and-waiting chess pieces we are. Consistency, my friends.

Can we call this “Game, Set, and Match”? Or should we stick with “Marxist Materialism”? An inspiring worldview for the powerless masses, nevertheless. Read the rest of this entry »

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Don’t Cry Over Spilled Perfume: Overcoming Judas Syndrome in Our Economic Thinking

Mary, Lazarus, Judas, perfume, ointmentMuch of my focus on this blog has been on pursuing an economics that pushes beyond earthbound thinking.

Over at the Acton Institute PowerBlog, I attempt to lay out a basic baseline of this approach, using Judas’ harsh response to Mary’s outpouring of expensive perfume as a starting point:

Much like Judas Iscariot, who reacted harshly to Mary’s outpouring of expensive ointment on Jesus’s feet, we are prone to react only to the material implications, ignoring altogether whether God might prefer us to do something so peculiar as “keep it for the day of [Jesus’s] burial,” as was the case for Mary.

It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul urged us to present our bodies as a “living sacrifice” — to not be “conformed to this world,” but be “transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Such a life, Paul explains, demands a transcendent perspective made up by constant “testing” of the world as we naturally see it, that we might “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This is a life consisting of far more than surface-level observations of the physical world, requiring us to submit our reasoning about everything from material prosperity to human happiness to the ultimate will of the Supreme Creator.

Leveraging a striking Whittaker Chambers quote, I point to some extremes that such thinking can lead us to (e.g. Soviet Communism). But as I go on to note, such a tendency is typically far more tricky to discern:

The same temptations Chambers indicates — of earthbound thinking and intellectual arrogance — can easily sneak into our personal plans for achieving God’s ends. We may, for instance, openly recognize that God has called us to meet the needs of the poor and alleviate poverty, but far too often we attempt to resolve the “God question” here, moving quickly and comfortably to our own personal plans and designs for how might get there (e.g. foreign aid, fair trade, a higher minimum wage, etc.). Rather than continuing to push toward the heart of God — toward a life full of transcendent reasoning and discernment — we look instead to the spilled ointment on the floor, frustrated and not bothering to ask, “Lord, what would you have me do?”

This is the most basic question, and we must ask it with sincerity and a heart of sacrifice. It is crucial that we observe the physical world, and it is necessary for us to ask sincere questions about why and how resources are used, but these questions need to be asked in conversation with our Creator, not in humanistic isolation.

God meets us in the here and now. He cares about the earthbound needs of the sparrow and human alike, and his eternal purposes are already in Read the rest of this entry »

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Celebrate the Stuff: Avoiding Anti-Capitalism Hum-Bug and Advent Gnosticism

Sufjan Stevens, Christmas, gnosticism, anti-capitalismChristmas is a season that now comes pre-packaged with critiques of capitalism and consumerism. Although carefulness and concern over hyper-consumerism is always appropriate, in our desperate efforts to disassociate ourselves with Black Friday materialism, too often we push too far, yielding to a creeping dualism that’s unproductive for our economic culture and hazardous to Christmas cheer.

Over at Values and Capitalism, Elise Amyx provides a great critique of one such manifestation, Sufjan Stevens’s Christmas album, which seeks to expose Christmas for what he believes it’s become: “an annual exploitation of wealth, a festival of consumerism, and a vast playing field for the voyages of capitalism.”

Again, critiques of a “festival of consumerism” are on target in certain respects, but by taking us through a variety of Stevens’s “carols,” Amyx demonstrates how Stevens falls into the trap of taking these themes too far.

Her conclusion: (1) “he confuses the market economy with consumerism,” and (2) “he elevates the spiritual above the material.”

As she goes on to explain:

Stevens seems to hold that capitalism is evil because it necessitates materialistic consumerism. But he misunderstands the difference between consumerism and the market economy…When the goodness of the material is lost, capitalism is an easy scapegoat for consumerism.

Stevens’s misconception of capitalism also reflects a broader theological underpinning of all material things, reminiscent of ancient Gnosticism and some modern evangelical movements today. He claims Christmas should be about the spiritual aspects—what we feel and known inside—not material traditions…

Stevens wisely critiques the worthlessness of placing one’s hope solely in the material aspect of Christmas, but he misses a great opportunity to distinguish between worship of the material and worship of God through the material. He fails to point out the goodness that physical things can bring at Christmastime. Advent candles, nativity sets, presents, Christmas lights and ornaments need not distract us from Christ, but exist as physical reminders that lead us to worship Christ…

…Stevens’s Christmas message is one of massive spiritual and material discord, yet Advent embodies spiritual and material harmony that God intended for the world—and that’s the redemptive beauty in all the silver and gold adorning your Christmas tree.

In the same vein, though without reference to Stevens or capitalism, Douglas Wilson offers a similar perspective, noting that “a godliness that won’t delight in fudge and Read the rest of this entry »

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Transforming Hearts and Minds Through Entrepreneurship

I’ve already weighed in on Bono’s “humbling” realizations about capitalism and commerce, noting that although I’m still not overly confident in the direction of Bono’s efforts, such a realization is an encouraging sign. Yet despite my original skepticism — which Greg Forster found a bit too heavy-handed — Bono has continued with this theme, arguing more recently that “commerce and entrepreneurial capitalism take more people out of poverty than aid.” Consider me pleased.

Last week, Josh Good of AEI’s Values & Capitalism project (where I also blog), used Bono’s comments as a springboard for a broader discussion about the role of aid and entrepreneurship in the developing world. Columnist Michael Gerson leads the discussion, followed by HOPE International’s Chris Horst and Andrea McDaniel of the As We Forgive Rwanda Initiative.

You can watch a video of the event here:

Although I routinely have strong and significant disagreements with Gerson’s overall approach, particularly on the topic of aid, his remarks in this particular talk are pretty close to the mark. Even where we disagree, I continue to find his arguments on particular global health initiatives to be compelling challenges to my own less interventionist positions.

The most striking point, however, comes from Horst, who points to an important Nicolas Kristof column that I’ve discussed in the past. Reminding us that the developing world faces more than just a resource problem, Horst emphasizes that our goal of empowering entrepreneurship in these countries needs to stretch beyond Read the rest of this entry »

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Have Faith in America: Calvin Coolidge on Restoring Confidence

Calvin CoolidgePresident Obama has been re-elected, and as many commentators point out, he faces a nation even more divided than when he took office.

Over at the Acton Institute, I contemplate how President Obama might go about reuniting the country, using President Calvin Coolidge’s famous speech, “Have Faith in Massachusetts,” as an example:

I’m currently reading President Calvin Coolidge’s autobiography, and in it, he describes a situation quite similar to our own. In the 1910s, Coolidge was a state senator in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, yet even in his local community, he witnessed severe conflict and division among his fellow citizens, including the now-famous “Bread and Roses” strike and the accelerating split in the Republican Party toward Teddy Roosevelt’s emerging progressivism

…It would be January of 1914 that Coolidge was sworn in as President of the Massachusetts Senate. He would now have a louder voice, along with more opportunity to change things: to face the tide of radicalism and class warfare and restore confidence and unity in the Commonwealth.

Coolidge responded by giving an inauguration speech for the ages (now known as “Have Faith in Massachusetts”), one that downplayed the power of government as the primary agent of cultural and economic change, avoided divisive distinctions of class, gender, or race, and instead elevated the redemptive, restorative power and potential of the human spirit. Instead of promoting a zero-sum view of human engagement, Coolidge emphasized and romanticized the type of cooperation and collaboration that the market provides and prosperity demands.

Here’s a sample of the speech:

This Commonwealth is one. We are all members of one body. The welfare of the weakest and the welfare of the most powerful are inseparably bound together. Industry cannot flourish if labor languish. Transportation cannot prosper if manufactures decline. The general welfare cannot be provided for in any one act, but it is well to remember that the benefit of one is the benefit of all, and the neglect of one is the Read the rest of this entry »

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When Our Journey Is God’s Journey: Paul Ryan, Individualism, and the American Dream

In his speech at the Republican National Convention, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan provided a rare articulation of the true power and importance of the American Dream — an idea that, as of late, has come to either be derided as overly individualistic or exalted as a pseudonym for collectivist entitlement.

Ryan’s view:

College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life. Everyone who feels stuck in the Obama economy is right to focus on the here and now. And I hope you understand this too, if you’re feeling left out or passed by: You have not failed, your leaders have failed you.

None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers – a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.

Listen to the way we’re spoken to already, as if everyone is stuck in some class or station in life, victims of circumstances beyond our control, with government there to help us cope with our fate.

It’s the exact opposite of everything I learned growing up in Wisconsin, or at college in Ohio. When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself. That’s what we do in this country. That’s the American Dream. That’s freedom, and I’ll take it any day over the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners.

Yet as romantic and well-put as I take this to be, I fear that many will still fail to connect the dots, claiming that any promotion of “my own path” and “my own journey” will necessarily lead to an atomized world of selfish, isolation-prone hucksters out to exploit others toward achieving their own narrow ends. For these folks, Ryan is promoting the very conditions from which fantastical Marxian crises of history are born.

The truth is that individual liberty lends toward community engagement and the market lends toward social interaction and cooperation—the real kind. The “American Dream” of President Obama—a vision in which caring for the “least of these” is reduced to Read the rest of this entry »

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The Moral Case for a Free Economy: An Interview with Father Robert Sirico

Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, recently released a new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, in which he aims to overturn common stereotypes of capitalism and dig into the real moral implications of free enterprise. Applying his usual wit and theological depth, Fr. Sirico delivers fundamental moral arguments for why capitalism does not , as the narrative goes, promote greed, selfishness, and cruelty, but instead leverages human creativity and generosity. More importantly, Fr. Sirico contemplates how we might use our economic systems to further realize our relationship with God and man.

In this interview with Remnant Culture, Fr. Sirico discusses some of the key topics of his book, including consumerism, Ayn Rand, equality, health care, and the common “caricature” of economic man.

Of course, I encourage you to read the book in full.

One of the most popular arguments Christians make against free enterprise is that it is based on or driven by consumerism. In your book, you argue that consumerism actually makes capitalism “impossible over the long term.” How so?

Of course, we all consume. That is a fact of life. The Christian concern is not with the fact that we have to consume things (as thought we were Gnostics who did not believe in the goodness of the created world), but that we not be consumed by things.

The capitalist cycle depends on people using whatever goods they have to produce something valuable for their neighbors, and making a profit in the process. People then reinvest their profit into expanding their business, and making more profit. It’s a virtuous cycle. If an individual immediately rushes out and spends every last cent he earns today, he would have nothing left over for reinvesting and expanding for tomorrow, and thus there would be no means for sustaining his business, not to mention obtaining daily necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing.

In writing about your “undoing” as a leftist, you describe a moment when you realized that the questions you were asking about Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were similar to “the simple queries that the tall nun had posed to our First Holy Communion Class” — questions about who made the world, who God is, and why God made us. Why did studying economics inspire a return to these questions, and why are such questions important for us to consider when contemplating economics?

There is something “underneath” economics.  Economics is not really about money and charts and statistics. It is essentially about human interaction. At the center of each economic transaction stands the human person. When we talk about tax levels or private property or inflation, we are talking about realities that have profound effects on the ways people live their lives, and the ways they interact with each other. When you see that economic conditions influence the decisions people make and alter their lifestyles, you realize that people react negatively to things they view as violating their intrinsic dignity. High tax levels can be immoral not only because of the negative effects they have, but simply because it is immoral to take an inordinate amount of what someone has worked hard to earn. Pope John Paul II has made clear that unemployment is a grave wrong because it jeopardizes the lives of workers and their families.

Studying these economic realities forces you to go back to those basic questions: Who is man? How much may a government justly take from its citizens? What are the limits of government? What are its responsibilities? Much more than numbers are at stake here: intrinsic human dignity, flourishing and rights hang in the balance.

Advocates of free enterprise are often assumed to be robotic devotees of Ayn Rand, the atheist novelist and promoter of a so-called “virtue of selfishness.” Yet you argue that Rand’s beliefs stand in conflict with the very free enterprise system she claimed to support. Where are Christians to find themselves between Randian individualism and Marxist collectivism?

Rand’s theory is self-defeating because it denies the fact that the free market is based on Read the rest of this entry »

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American Decline and the Virtue of Industriousness

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles MurrayI have previously commented on Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, as it relates to his larger argument of our “inequality of human dignity.” This week at Values & Capitalism, I offer some additional thoughts, this time on Murray’s analysis of America’s recent decline in industriousness.

Murray sees industriousness as one of America’s “founding virtues,” the others of which include honesty, marriage and religiosity. Yet while these others are important, Murray argues that industriousness was the most defining.

The founders talked about this virtue constantly, using the eighteenth-century construction, industry. To them, industry signified a cluster of qualities that had motivated the Revolution in the first place—a desire not just to be free to speak one’s mind, to practice religion as one saw fit, and to be taxed only with representation, but the bone-deep American assumption that life is to be spent getting ahead through hard work, making a better life for oneself and one’s children…If just one American virtue may be said to be defining, industriousness is probably it.

Murray provides plenty of data to indicate a decline in this virtue, including shifting attitudes about work, rises in physical disability benefits applications, decreases in labor force participation, and decreases in hours worked per week.

My conclusion?

The data affirm what many of us already know, and what I’ve made a habit of regurgitating in this space time and time again: Americans have shifted away from an energetic, purpose-driven, higher-order pursuit of value, and are instead moving toward security, insulationism, materialism and minimum-commitment thinking. Rather than building upon our history of sacrificial innovation and difficult labor, regardless of immediate or tangible personal benefits, many Americans are seizing our economic prosperity as an opportunity to slack off and opt for personal leisure, short-sighted consumerism and near-boastful protectionism.

If Murray’s data don’t persuade you, look no further than our country’s lackadaisical response to our debt crisis and our salivating over the pandering promises of our politicians. We yearn to be shielded from competition and globalization, nitpicking over which candidate offshored how many jobs to where. We want to be promised a retirement that no longer exists, and one that will never exist without a painful departure from the status quo. We want the government to do all of our risk-taking and weighty decision-making on our behalf, whether in entrepreneurship, health care, housing or charity. We want to be told that less will be expected of us, not more.

Rather than recognizing and embracing our basic human need to experience earned success, we are becoming more focused on simply putting in our 40 and demanding the stars in return. This shift in our attitudes about work—this decline in our culture of industriousness—is only one factor in this emerging cultural divide, but its corrosive cultural effects have no discernible limitations.

We must return to that attitude that Francis Grund once described, pursuing Read the rest of this entry »

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You Didn’t Build That: The Logical Ends of Collectivist Idolatry

In a recent campaign speech, President Obama doubled down on what has become a streak of denigrating business and pooh-poohing individual initiative.

The quote in question:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me because they want to give something back…If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen…The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

Although the President’s “you didn’t build that” line is the center of attention, such a response is only logical for those who believe, more fundamentally, that enduring excessive tax hikes is an ideal way to “give something back.” When from the government all blessings flow, then to the government all things must go.

On a more practical level, the notion of “giving back” through increased taxes assumes that any funds we have “given” to the government are somehow being over utilized—that we are getting too big of a bang for our buck, particularly if we go do something leechy like start a business. For Obama, it seems as though rich people and business owners in particular are getting above and beyond what they have contributed to our bloated federal bureaucracy, so how dare they push back when asked to “give back”? By this logic, our federal deficit is really a deficit of “giving back.” The federal government has not overpromised and under-delivered; we citizens have overly devoured and under-“given.”

Talking this way quickly becomes problematic, particularly because the word “give” is being used to describe something that “giving” is not (thus my excessive use of quotation marks thus far—my apologies). President Obama is not talking about business owners “giving something back” through charity, community service, social entrepreneurship, environmental sustainability, or, God forbid, value creation. He is talking about business owners submitting to his coercive political agenda, a primary plank of which happens to be making rich people pay for things they don’t want to pay for by getting non-rich majorities to throw stones at them.

Sounds like a good model for “giving something back.”

Yet I’m not one to say that we can’t give something back through government, or even that we shouldn’t. We should be thankful for the successes of government—for the positive achievements it has made toward maintaining social order and creating conditions for human flourishing. Plenty of people gave something to make these achievements possible, material or not. Indeed, as an example of purely material “giving,” Warren Buffett and Rep. Scott Rigell have participated in just that, donating freely and willingly to the IRS. If this is what Obama is advocating—voluntary contributions to the federal deficit—it would be far less problematic, though perhaps still inadvisable (show me the cuts).

So yes, we can and should give back to our communities and institutions, including government, and we should recognize that others have contributed to our successes through their own generosity and commitment (a point aptly made by Jordan Ballor).

But Obama is saying something quite different, for when this notion of “giving something back” is wielded as Obama wields it—toward his own narrow, explicitly coercive purposes—we should recognize that Read the rest of this entry »

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Celebrating the Things of the Spirit: Calvin Coolidge on the Declaration of Independence

Calvin Coolidge

Independence Day is on everyone’s mind, and thus, you should make time to read President Calvin Coolidge’s speech on the Declaration of Independence.

Coolidge contemplates what led the founders to write what they did and what inclined Americans to follow their lead. He is convinced that spiritual inclinations and orientation played the most important role:

Before we can understand [the founders’] conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered around the meeting-house. They were intent upon religious worship. While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live. While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. Over a period as great as that which measures the existence of our independence they were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training, but also in their political thought. They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.

The founders’ religious leanings were certainly diverse, but as Coolidge notes, their “wide acquaintance with the Scriptures” was a primary force in the development of their political thought. It was not only by the economic wisdom of Hamilton or the intellectual prowess of Jefferson that our country became what it is today. Something deeper and more profound was going on—something spiritual.

As Coolidge concludes:

No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshiped.

We must reframe our thinking and realign our pursuits to “the things that are holy.” It is not by our material prosperity that we have become great, but through our spiritual empowerment and obedience to a higher order. When we as individuals are made free, we have the ability to pursue our dreams and achieve greatness, but we must remember to align those dreams and achievements to the source of all things good.

Happy Fourth of July! Above all, let’s celebrate the “things of the spirit.”

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