Economics, Rights, and Wrongs

Leading people
If you try to assert wisdom before people have themselves walked it, be prepared for much resistance, denial, push-back, and verbal debate.
Richard Rohr
Falling Upward 
            These are apt words from Richard Rohr…. Civil, congenial, perspectival conversation centered on involvement in the political process seems impossible. If Rohr is correct, conversation will not convince anyone. It will require the individual (or community) to engage the issue empirically for any possibility that wisdom is gained and one be persuaded of a matter. Mark Bittman, of the New York Times, said in the 10/12/2011 issue, “Whether the issue is Wall Street or food, it’s activism that will lead to change.” Yet, we still often choose to maintain a certain perspective (probably more accurate, motive) even while participating in a “noble” cause. It seems wisdom must also come through purification of heart. While we are formed by participating in acts that mimic Jesus—cultivating heart and spirit—heart and spirit-work is necessary for doing righteous acts, justice: making things right in this world. With God, it is never either/or. God is concerned with the whole being, the whole body, the whole Body.
            As it has been noted countless times, we do not exist in a vacuum. We give and receive form just as we breathe and move in this world. My actions, choices, behaviors impact those around me—directly and indirectly, in the first degree to the nth. Jeffery Sachs observed in his research that the US achieved a shallow division between middle and upper classes, while maintaining a robust, growing economy after WWII. This until just before Ronald Reagan took the office of president. Reagan, however, surmised that the remedy to a fraying economy is to slash taxes and “reduce government programs like energy research and social insurance…. The Reagan Revolution failed to grapple with the even bigger upheaval of globalization.”[1]U.S. industries such as apparel, autos and textiles were outsourced to other countries and corporations experienced enormous boons while the domestic laborer was put out of a job. The cost of thingsdecreased, but only made possible by the exploitation of the poorest of the poor in other countries. We so enjoyed getting our products at greatly reduced prices, but countless others were worked to death in the process, and still more were out of a job here. So, we liked our inexpensive products, but could not get a job because of them.
            I read and hear lamentations that the balance of our jobs is going elsewhere. Nevertheless, it appears that the wages of workers in many of these other countries are rising to higher levels (though still not nearly that of the average worker in the same industry in the US). With the rising cost of transport and fuel, it is becoming more cost-effective to make products on our own soil. This, of course, has the added benefit for the environment, but this is not the point of this essay. While production is more costly than it was during pre-living-wage conscientiousness, bringing production back to the US brings more jobs and boosts the economy. Still, I cannot help wondering whether economic pronounced in-and de-flations correspond to the treatment of those who provide the foundational services that bolster our economy. Some of the most brilliant economists recognized this very fact: economics is not merely math, science, or philosophy; rather, economics is organic and significantly affected by the human-element.
In much the same way, the writers in ancient Israel when speaking of wrongs committed do not necessarily indicate the affronted rights of others. Rather, “the assumption of Israel’s writers that God holds us accountable for doing justice has the consequence that when we fail to do justice, we wrong God…we…deprive God of that to which God has a right.”[2]This is what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls, “right order way of thinking. By issuing the Torah, God has established a matrix of obligations for the ordering of Israel’s life. Insofar as Israel follows those rules of obligation, her life is rightly ordered and justice is present in the land. Departure from the divinely ordained order is injustice.”[3]But there is a “pervasive presence of social victims” in the text, inconsistent with “right order thinking.” Within God’s Torah, the victim is not the focal point. Rather, “victims point away from themselves and their plight to the fact that someone is not living up to his or her obligations.” The victim is “a mere consequence. A right order thinker has his focus wrong if his emphasis is on the indicators of obligation-violation rather than on the violations themselves.” Doing justice is not bound to those named in covenant with God. All are accountable to do justice.
            While the terms and conditions fluctuate and evolve, the principle concerns are consistent, and we seem to be in a perpetual loop consigning ourselves to repeat history. How myopic and selfish we have a tendency to be. In utter frustration, economic theorist, John Maynard Keynes, defined the idiocy of drafting a treaty (following WWI) that is primarily politically motivated, rather than addressing global economic realities:
                        The Treaty includes no provisions for the economic rehabilitation of Europe, nothing to make the defeated Central Empires into good neighbors, nothing to stabilize the new States of Europe, nothing to reclaim Russia; nor does it promote in any way a compact of economic solidarity amongst the Allies themselves; no arrangement was reached at Paris for restoring the disordered finances of France and Italy, or to adjust the systems of the Old World and the New….
                        It is an extraordinary fact that the fundamental economic problems of a Europe starving and disintegrating before their eyes was the one question in which it was impossible to arouse the interest of the Four [major leaders who drafted the treaty]. Reparation was their main excursion into the economic field, and they settled it as a problem of theology, of politics, of electoral chicanery, from every point of view except that of the economic future of the states whose destiny they were handling.[4]
            Keynes saw prewar prosperity as a “fool’s paradise,” and his insights are salient even now: “We assume some of the most peculiar and temporary of our late advantages as natural, permanent, and to be depended on, and we lay our plans accordingly. On this sandy and false foundation we scheme for social improvement and dress our political platforms, pursue our animosities and particular ambitions, and feel ourselves with enough margin in hand to foster, not assuage, civil conflict in the European family…. The prosperity of Europe had been based not on the ‘ingenious mechanism’ of competition, an environment friendly to entrepreneurs and ample finance, but rather on a happy historical accident that had temporarily removed certain limits to growth.”[5]Ultimately over pessimistic, Keynes’ insight is instructive, nonetheless. A great deal more was still to be ascertained in the science (philosophy?) of economics, but Keynes draws out the human tendency to expect, even demand as a right the highest level of consumption offered, and due considerably to the unearned circumstance of when and where one happened to be born. The industrial revolution, entrepreneurship and the advancement of technologies to enhance living conditions absolutely had the result of raising the standard of living for the greater populations of the world. When it seemed the vast majority were destined to remain predominantly in poverty throughout the many thousands of years before the nineteenth century, this astounding turn of events is often taken to be divinely ordained.
            What is too often overlooked, however, is that entitlement (as an attitude, distinct from the government initiated programs referred to as such) saturates the psyche more quickly than water does a Bounty towel sheet! The question is not Who is not receiving the basic amenities as I, but, Why can I not as easily get the things I have grown used to. And, that precisely is the affront to God. My neighbor is malnourished, a family goes without medical care, and I do nothing but let the system play itself out.
            What, then, is my responsibility? I am convicted. But, if I begin a conversation in this vein, my friends or family immediately cut off the discussion with accusations and vehement arguments even before I can explain…Comparing the Palestinian-Jewish statehood issue in Israel with a speculative discord between the US and Canada? What? Really?
            There are hard-workers among the abject poor andthe billionaires. Slackers subsist among the same. The point is not the so-called victim; the point is right-order thinking, purity of heart. When concern goes beyond self—and even among the poorest of the poor—to one who might even be in worse condition than me, to discern that which is my responsibility for making things right, then we are on the road to true equality, authentic regard for all human beings as worthy of it—just by the very nature of being human. To do so makes us human.
            So, for now, I pray for wisdom to pervade and experience ensue, I resolve to muster enough courage and dive into conversations that reflect these convictions, and fall down in absolute gratefulness for a God who, though wronged by the injustice of which I still perpetuate, is like no other:
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
   and passing over the transgression
   of the remnant of your possession?
He does not retain his anger forever,
   because he delights in showing clemency.
He will again have compassion upon us;
He will tread our iniquities under foot. (Micah 7:18-19)

[1]Jeffery Sachs, from his book, The Price of Civilization, quoted in TIME magazine:
[2]Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
[3]Ibid., 89.
[4]Sylvia Nasar, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 256. Italics, mine.
[5]Ibid., 256, 257.

One thought on “Economics, Rights, and Wrongs

  1. Wow – that's deep. Feel like I'm reading a text book. I liked this: "What is too often overlooked, however, is that entitlement (as an attitude, distinct from the government initiated programs referred to as such) saturates the psyche more quickly than water does a Bounty towel sheet!" I know I suffer from this just like this.

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