Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Few More Thoughts on Capitalism and Catholic Social Justice

If you were kind enough to make it all the way through my last posting you'll undoubtedly realize that my argument (as logical, well-formed, and supported by documentation as it was) did not go over well with Thomas J. MacNamara who spoke on behalf of laissez-faire Capitalism. I remarked in my post that the sort of adherence to a "pure" economic system (any economic system) without reference to how well it might be serving actual human needs is really little more than slavery to ideology.

And I wonder to myself, "How can Christians surrender themselves to ideology?"

I was reminded of the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, verses 31-46:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he
will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for
me, in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

The Son of Man does not ask us on the last day, "How balanced were your books? How closely did you adhere to the rules of Capitalism? How great a profit did you make for your stockholders? How efficiently did you run your business or the economy as a whole? How productive were your workers?" Indeed, he does not ask, "Are you gay? Are you a Socialist? Are you a Democrat?"

No, instead the question he asks -- and the standard he holds us to -- is quite simple: What did you do for the least among us, for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the ill?

And I wonder how a Christian Capitalist answers this question. But I believe I already know.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: Social Justice versus Capitalism

Several weeks ago, on November 16, 2011 (the day after NYC cops in riot gear evicted a peaceful protest in Zuccotti Park), I took part in a panel at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, NY, on Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement. The panel was sponsored by Molloy's Center for Social and Ethical Concerns (CSEC) and hosted by Molloy's VP for Advancement Ed Thompson. I was joined on the panel by Dr. Michael Russo, Professor of Philosophy and Director of CSEC, and Thomas J. MacNamara, adjunct Instructor in Molloy's Business program and Partner-in-Charge of the Litigation Practice Group at Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman, LLP.

I'm going to try to describe as objectively as possible the evening's discussion.

The evening began with a video by Mike Russo (AKA "Udo Capelli"), "Why We Protest: Voices from Occupy Wall Street." Michael then gave a little background on the video, the protesters, and his experiences at Zuccotti Park. (running time: 30:47)

I followed Mike Russo's video and talk with a presentation I called "The Inevitability of the Occupy Movement in a Global Context." I put forward what I believed to be a rational argument directed at a fairly conservative Catholic audience. I quoted from four Papal Encyclicals (Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, John XXIII's Mater et Magistra, Paul VI's Populorum Progressio, and John Paul II's Solicitudo Rei Socialis), all of which called some dimension of Capitalism into question and urged that self interest -- while a legitimate human drive -- not overpower and destroy the idea of "the common good." Listening to the quotes I selected, one could easily imagine I was reading Marx to an audience of Catholics. But this was part of my point: I wanted this Catholic, Christian audience to hear what the Church teaches about economics and social justice.

I also proposed that, since Christians have been warned by the Church for a century about the dangers of economic injustice but have largely ignored the warnings, there is a certain inevitability to the Occupy movement. One of the scholars whose work I referenced to support my proposition was Jacques Ellul. I've been struck by the fact that we are in a situation at the moment that runs counter to Ellul's description of the several necessary prerequisite social factors for effective propaganda, most notably a broadly shared average level of education and a broadly shared average level of income. In the last thirty years -- with supply-side economics at work and growing emphasis on the privatization of everything, including schools -- we've seen our national educational performance falter and a chasm grow between the country's richest and poorest, with the middle class the most threatened of all. And so the homgenizing effects of mass propaganda will, naturally, decrease under these circumstances making dissent and protest all the more inevitable. A logical argument, it seems to me: income inequality is not just unjust, it is dangerous to the stability of a society. (running time: 22:54)

Finally, Wall Street had its say in Thomas J. MacNamara's presentation, "Capitalism as the Solution, Not the Problem." Here's where I must actually try to be objective. Let's start with the title. Capitalism as solution? Sure. No problem. But the problem we're facing right now is not a problem with Capitalism? Wow. That's a tough one for me and suggests that only a true believer can rationalize such a statement.

I'll let you listen to Thom's argument (part of me is itching to call it a diatribe) and come to your own conclusions, but there are a small number of points I want to make: 1] no economic system is perfect. When we pretend that one system is perfect and cannot be regulated or treated with flexibility or is immune to change, we're not dealing with an economic theory anymore. We're dealing with an ideology. And ideology is the death of critical reason. Ideology is philosophy on artificial life support. Ideology -- any ideology -- is the dessicated corpse of reason embalmed with the fluid of self-justification. 2] There is no "invisible hand." Even when Adam Smith was talking about the so-called "invisible hand of the market" he wasn't anthropomorphizing markets; he was referring to the hand of God that guides the enlightened participants in a market who deal with one another not only out of self interest, but of "fellow feeling." 3] Ayn Rand was not a philosopher, nor is "objectivism" a "philosophy." Let's get this straight: philosophers don't answer questions, they ask them. And when someone proposes the one, true answer (whether we're talking about Communism or Capitalism or Objectivism or any of the other -isms floating around out there) he or she is not philosophizing, he or she is pushing an ideology. 4] Parts of Thom's argument sound as though they came directly from Frank Luntz's plenary presentation to the Republican Governors Association (even though that presentation came a couple of weeks after the panel at Molloy). It's all Washington's fault. Don't take money from "hard working taxpayers." They're "job creators" who believe in "economic freedom." Blah, blah, blah. 5] A fairer distribution of income will not make us Cuba.

I'm done being objective now. Watch for yourself. I report, you decide. Fair and balanced. Et cetera. (running time: 26:37)

Friday, December 02, 2011

It's Official...

...the Republican Party is dead.

Donald Trump is moderating a Republican debate in Iowa on December 27. The twice-bankrupt real estate developer, birther, and reality television star with the docile badger on his head will moderate "The Newsmax Ion Television 2012 Presidential Debate," which I'm sure was deliberately misnamed to sound far more important than history will prove it to be (it is, to be accurate, a Republican Presidential primary debate).

Pity the poor Republican. This primary season has already had the atmosphere of a circus; in lieu of ideas or palatable policies, candidates have tried to "come off" as various things, to project various images. There's Newt the intellectual (!), Newt the historian (!), Michelle the historian (!!), Rick P. the tough-talkin' Texan, Rick the only-real-Republican, Ron the hard-headed realist, and most entertaining of all, Herman the Herminator. (Just how many clowns can you fit in that little car?) The most memorable catch-phrases of the primary season thus far have included:

  • Apples and Oranges (Cain)

  • Nein, nein, nein!!! (Cain)

  • Now, I don't have the facts to back this up... (Cain)

  • Ummmm...ummm...uh... (Perry)

  • Obama put us in Lybia. Now he's going to put us in Africa. (Bachmann)

  • Let him die! (Paul)

  • Hey, remember me? (Santorum)

  • Why am I even here? (Huntsman)

Perhaps after December 27, we'll have one more phrase to remember, courtesy of the Donald: You're Fired!!!