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Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Economics of Scripture

Are the rich oppressing the poor in America?
The answer is not quite so clear as some people would have it.

Now, Scripture is quite clear-cut on the need to have a "preferential option for the poor". The problem, of course, is determining exactly what that phrase means. To people without a decent understanding of basic economics, things get pretty confused pretty quickly.

Interpreting Scripture is Tricky
To see why Scripture is being twisted today in the realm of economics, we should study another clear example of misinterpreted Scripture - the flat geocentric earth.  As Templeton Prize winner Father Stanley Jaki liked to point out, Scripture literally describes a flat earth beneath a whirling firmament of planets and stars, complete with supporting pillars, a hemispherical sky with waters above, and doors that opened and closed to produce rain and drought.

Around 1611 AD, a man named Galileo used his improved telescope, along with work by a Polish canon lawyer (and probable priest) Copernicus, to point out that the Bible could not be taken literally in its description. Jesuit priests who had long studied astronomy greeted Galileo's evidence with tremendous enthusiasm, throwing parties for Galileo and heaping accolades on him.

But, secular university professors who envied Galileo's new-found fame, and who feared that his work would overthrow their own importance, conspired against him. Professor Columbe formed the League of the Dove and in 1614 paid off a priest, Tommaso Caccini to begin preaching against Galileo's theories at Mass. The priest essentially accused Galileo of perverting Scripture. This began the long conflict between the university professors and Galileo which ended in two different trials and Galileo being found "vehemently suspect of heresy."

Scripture says a lot of things, but we must recognize that when it comes to reconciling science with faith, there can be no contradiction between the two. If there appears to be a contradiction, we must interpret Scripture in such a way that it does not contradict the facts described by the other sciences. We must also recognize that dividing men and women up into the evil rich and the good poor is an essentially false view of the world:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” ― Aleksandr I. SolzhenitsynThe Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956
When it comes to economics, Catholics might need to double-check their interpretations of Scripture against economic realities, and think about how best to interpret the Scriptures in light of our new knowledge. Wealth is no longer measured in gold coins. Money is now an electronic cipher, a twist of electrons in the bowels of a computer. Work and the fruits of honest work can now be disseminated in ways that simply weren't possible before.

Just as our understanding of what usury is has changed because money has changed, we have to understand the Scriptural commands about the poor in light of what wealth has morphed into.

Capitalism: Problem and Solution
Now, I have written endlessly against the problems entailed in capitalism. There's no question that pure capitalism, the mindless accumulation of wealth, necessarily directs itself to destroying families and human life in general.

But, that having been said, we must also recognize that capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other system on earth. And this isn't just a bromide on my part, but a cold, hard fact.

We can wail about the way corporations dispose of people, but we must recognize that corporations don't do any of that.

People do.

Corporations don't exist in any moral sense, corporations aren't morally responsible for anything. Only individual people exist in a moral sense, only individual people are morally responsible.

After World War II, the Catholic Church formally condemned the idea that any people, Germans, Jews, anyone, can carry a corporate guilt. The only corporate guilt that men carry is original sin. We carry that lack of grace only because our first father, Adam, incurred that debt of grace and passed that impoverishment onto us, his children.

There is no other corporate guilt.
There can be no other corporate guilt.

We can't hold "corporations" responsible for mis-treating the poor. If the poor aren't treated well, that's my fault. It's the fault of the Church of which I am a member. But I can't assign blame to a group of people, of whom, coincidentally, I never happen to be a part.

Christ commanded Christians to care for the poor - he didn't tell Caesar to do it, nor did he assign the task to the local fish-mongers' guild. Care for the poor is the Church's responsibility - the only morally existent corporation. Care for the poor is the Christian's concern - the individual's.  Attacking the government for something we are supposed to be doing is the height of hypocrisy.

Caring for the Poor
Now, what constitutes caring for the poor?

That's where things get sticky.

Take the example of Norman Borlaug.

Norman Borlaug fed more poor people than any Christian denomination ever did. It is literally possible that he fed more poor people than even the Catholic Church ever did. But I'm unaware of him entering into any protests against the government or giving a lot of money to charity. From what I understand, for most of his life, he didn't have very much money to give. He just worked. But that was enough.

"Greedy" corporations, like ConAgra, Monsanto, and Dupont, took his work and made it economically feasible to disseminate throughout the world. If those corporations hadn't been rich, and if the shareholders and directors hadn't been elated at the increased wealth Borlaug's work promised, Borlaug's work would have withered and died on the vine, unheralded, unadvertised, unused.

Millions, possibly billions, would have either never been born, or having been born, would have died a terrible death of disease and starvation.

Now, did all those corporations and Borlaug himself - did they become wealthier as a result?
Why, yes.
Yes they did.
And doesn't Scripture tell us that a workman is worth his wage?

I didn't agree with the bank bailouts then and I don't now.
I think it prudentially a bad decision that prolongs a necessary agony.
But that's a prudential decision.
And the prudentials of economics, what constitutes a good economic decision that will benefit millions (while also, perhaps, massively benefitting a few), is not outlined in Scripture.

Scripture tells us only what the final outcome should be, it doesn't describe the methods in any great detail.

We can quote Scripture and attack the nasty corporations, and some of things employees of corporations do are quite nasty. For instance, chopping up babies to grab their stem cells will not win anyone awards for moral action on this blog. But we have to recognize that helping the poor in the long-term might mean that certain sectors of the economy (corporations, for instance) must accumulate massive amounts of wealth in order to have the bankroll necessary to disseminate and popularize truly deserving work.

Now, will those same wells of wealth also bankroll the dissemination of schlock, or really evil work?Why, sure.

After all, the line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart.
Capitalism is designed to satisfy every heart's desire.
Whether that desire is good or bad, capitalism will try to slake the desire.

That's why we can look at capitalism, corporations, governments and find so much evil.
That's also why we can look at exactly the same troika and find so much good.

So, when we take righteous indignation at the corporations, even at corporations whose stock we don't happen to own, we should remember that we are really railing against our own inadequacies.
And it would help us realize this if we pointed this out in the essay somewhere.

You see, the problem lies not in the corporations, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.


TH2 said...

I was hoping you would respond to that Fred Flintstone "economic analysis" conducted by the Diva.

Brilliant, reasoned article. That you referred to Fr. Jaki's Bible and Science made it even better.

scotju said...

I get so dang sick and tried of this myth that the rich are oppressing the poor in America. All this is Marxist, liberal propaganda. The misguilded fools who teach this garbage in the church are knowningly or unknowningly setting up needless barriers between the poor and the rich in the church and in the world. Both the rich and the poor need to tell the leftist idiots in the church and the world to take a running jump into the lake, and then start talking to each other on how to improve the economic situlation for everybody.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Glad you liked it, TH2!

Whenever Diva gets on his horse, you just know he's confused.

Father Jaki actually honored me by asking me to do some research for him once. It was a small task (looking up the origin of a specific term he planned on using in an upcoming speech), but he was a truly great man.

Estase said...

Need I remind the readers of that dreck sung every week in church:

"Gather us in, the rich and the haughty"

The implicit message is that being rich makes you immoral.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Well, someone else being rich makes ME immoral if I envy them their riches.

At this point the line could just as well read "gather them in, the poor and the haughty".

Also, there's no line in there about the incredibly ignorant, so that would leave the Diva in the cold.