Tag Archives: OST

Seeing the Unseen

Last week on my Facebook page I posted what I described at the time as a “sincerely offered thought experiment for my friends who support socialism.” The post generated a number of responses. Some good, other less so.

A consistent criticism was that the post was the post assumed what one comment called a “dishonest dichotomy” based as it was on what the author characterized as a series of “leading question(s)” that all assume (as another comment has it) a particular definition of socialism. As the author of the second comment writes:

by inviting “socialists” to explain why they’d be comfortable “giving up freedoms” to do certain things, you are implicitly assigning that definition. And it’s a rather patently obvious strawman: by making this socialist bogeyman you’re drawing up the rules of engagement to begin with.

Here I need to pause and point out that sacrifice is built into the nature of our economic life.

Apologists for socialism, as well as their free market counterparts, tend to frame arguments in terms of gain. The socialist (or the social democrat) will offer new entitlements such as “universal health care” or “free college tuition” while downplaying the actual financial costs of these programs.

On the free market side, one hears about how in a free exchange both parties are better off and that such exchanges create wealth. But here as well, there is a tendency to downplay the costs of a system of free exchange. I’m think here especially of the economic dislocations that happen when, for example, jobs move overseas.

To be sure there are, in the long term, benefits to say cheaper consumer goods. So too with freeing up capital for new investment.

The same with innovations in manufacturing or technology. Increased efficiency means an overall higher standard of living. But, again, what is the cost?

As one insightful comment had it my original post is

akin to a “thought experiment” for those who support capitalism to name those corporations whom they would like to exploit, monetize, and micromanage them, down to timing your bathroom breaks.

To which I answered, yes. It is very much like that and this question is fair and one which free market advocates must answer. What do we do when actors in the market engage in legal but morally dubious or unintentionally socially harmful behavior?

What unites this question and the questions I posed (see below) is that, in both cases, we can with the best of intentions act in a ways that compromises the freedom of others.

One of the questions I came back to several times with my Facebook conversation partners is whether we are discussing socialism or a social democracy with a robust safe net, what happens to those who disagree? With those who, for whatever reason, wish to opt out?

Think for example, of what happened when the Obama administration required employers to provide health insurance that included abortion and contraception coverage. A number of business owners and non-profits objected on moral grounds to do so.

As a result they faced the unenviable choice of (1) paying for services that violated their conscience, (2) face ruinous financial fines for refusing to comply with the law, (3) bearing the financial and social cost of a lawsuit against the government.

These costs are every bit as real, and ever bit as forced by circumstances, as those paid by low skill workers who find their bathroom breaks being timed by their employers.

The free market is not always as free as apologists imagine even as socialism or social democracy are not as pro-social as their apologists would have us believe.

In both cases. there are (as Bastiat reminds us) consequences or costs both seen and unseen to any policy or economic system. And so his caution that when a person is “absorbed in the effect which is seen has not yet learned to discern those which are not seen, he gives way to fatal habits, not only by inclination, but by calculation.”

As he concludes “Let us accustom ourselves, then, to avoid judging of things by what is seen only, but to judge of them by that which is not seen.” Why?

Because

The sophism of the Socialists on this point is showing to the public what it pays to the intermediates in exchange for their services, and concealing from it what is necessary to be paid to the State. Here is the usual conflict between what is before our eyes, and what is perceptible to the mind only, between what is seen, and what is not seen.

To this we could, and should, add for example the externalities of international trade or technological innovations.

But there are also costs for advances in medical care, greater rights for women and minorities. These too are part of the “unseen” of the free market. To say that there are costs with the greater liberalization of society, doesn’t mean we should reject the greater freedom. Rather it means we must be even more intentional and clearer about what it means to be free.

All exchanges have costs. Not only financial but social and personal. These are to our economic life what friction is to the physical world. In both cases, they slow us down. But it is here, in the social friction of our economic life that we can see the potential value of Orthodox Social Thought.

With her long history and especially here sacramental vision and eschatological orientation, the Church can bring to our attention what is often unseen in the market place. This includes not only giving a voice to those who don’t share in the material wealth the market generates but also of the broader, moral and spiritual costs to those who do.

“Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference,” Bastiat says, “the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee.” The good economist must do so because “this difference is enormous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favourable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, — at the risk of a small present evil.”

My argument is that the Church must bring to light not only the seen but the unseen. The Christian must attend to those costs which accrue to even morally good, prudent, and just actions whether by the State or private persons acting individually or in concert.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Facebook Question:

A sincerely offered thought experiment for my friends who support socialism.

Would you be willing to move to Madison, work for a living and give me final say in all your economic decisions?

These would “major” decisions like what job you held and fir what wage. In addition to this, I would say where you could live and whether or not you owned a car or used mass transit.

It would also include”minor” decision like what you could purchase at the grocery store. Not only would I determine the quantity of your purchases but quality and schedule of what you bought.

If you would do this, why would you give me this authority?

If you wouldn’t, why wouldn’t you and why would you give similar authority to the State?

 

Contempt Isn’t A Winning Strategy

Yesterday, I was at a meeting at UW-Madison. While not mentioning President Trump, the administrator who was speaking mentioned in passing that the country has changed in the last year or so and that we are now living in a context that is politically divisive. A few things caught my attention.

First was the speakers casually assumption that everyone in the room agreed with his assessment that we are now living in politically divided times. Second, that the cause of our divisions is the election of Donald Trump as POTUS.

While I would agree with the speaker that we live in politically fractious times and that Trump’s election as POTUS figures in this, I don’t think that Trump election is the cause.  Yes, President Trump is a divisive figure. So, however, is President Obama.

Trump divides by his manner. He can be impulsive, rude and vulgar. Obama is much more polished but he pursued policies that were antithetical not only the moral values of many Americans but were also an assault on religious liberty. His rhetoric on a range of social and economic issues matters could also be divisive.

Deep, and sometimes bitter, political divisions plagued us during the Bush and Clinton administrations as well. Neither side has a lock on either civic virtue or civic vice.To suggest otherwise is wrong morally and factually.

In any case, the speaker seemed to me to be secure in his assumption that everyone in the room shared his evaluation of our current political situation and its causes.  While state employees have a right to their political views, I found it disheartening and worrisome that a member of the UW administration presumed that I agreed with him.

What brought this all to mind, is a video making the rounds. In it, Hillary Clinton explains to an audience in India why she lost the 2016 Presidential election.

The take away for Christians and others of good will is this. We need to be careful that we don’t presume people agree with us. And, if they disagree with us, we need to be careful that we don’t impute malicious motives for their disagreement.

Judge for yourself why Ms. Clinton thinks she lost. Based on the video, however, it appears to me that she thinks she lost because, as one (liberal) commentator said, voters

…sensed her contempt and lack of concern for their predicament. It wasn’t hard. She had contempt during the campaign even when she was under pressure to act like she cared, and it’s no surprise that she has it when she’s free of that pressure. To express her contempt and lack of empathy now is simply to revel in the freedom of not having to appeal to the people for their votes.

Contempt for those who disagree with us is never a winning strategy.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

If you look at the map of the United States, there is all that red in the middle where Trump won. I won in the coasts, I win, you know, Illinois, Minnesota, places like that. But what the map doesn’t show you is that I won the places that represent two thirds of America’s gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward, and his whole campaign, “make America great again,” was looking backwards. You know you didn’t like black people getting rights, you don’t like women getting jobs, you don’t want to see that Indian American succeeding more than you are. Whatever your problem is, I’m going to solve it.

Source: The Weekly Standard

Reason Not Emotions

Writing in the WSJ the Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross tells us that “Since 1998, countless steel mills and aluminum smelters have closed. More than 75,000 steel jobs alone have disappeared.”

While we can argue about the prudence of the Trump administration’s proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, Secretary Ross’s comment is simply illogical. If we can’t count the number of closed steel mill, we cant count the number of jobs lost.

The practical and moral analysis of economic policy requires not only facts but logic. Good intentions are never enough.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Why Property Rights Matter

Guns for sale are seen inside of Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, February 28, 2018. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

(National ReviewThe stores stopped selling firearms to people under 21 after the Parkland shooting.A 20-year-old is hitting Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart with lawsuits accusing them of discriminating against him based on age.

The stores stated they would no longer sell guns to customers under 21 after a 19-year-old gunman killed 17 people on Valentine’s Day at a Parkland, Fla. school.

Tyler Watson has filed two lawsuits after he was not allowed to buy a rifle from either store. Dick’s refused to sell the Oregon man a .22-caliber Ruger rifle on February 24, and Walmart would not sell him a firearm on March 3. Oregon law allows people 18 and older to buy guns.

I wondered how long it would be before someone sued WalMart or Dick’s Sporting Goods. Now I know.
Orthodox moral teaching supports a right to private property. As an extension of that right, some retailers have decided to respond to recent school shootings by restricting sales of firearms. Whether this plan will have any effect on gun violence remains to be seen.
But like an individual, a corporation has a moral right–and indeed obligation–to control their property as their conscience dictates.
For good and understandable reasons, US state and federal law don’t allow businesses to deny services to customers who are legally allowed to use their services. So under most circumstances, a restaurant must serve any customer who wants a meal and a hotel rent a room to any who ask.
The intention behind these laws is to prevent discrimination. A good and noble goal to be sure.
But over time, laws tend to take on a life of their own. Now not only are merchants being obligated to violate their conscience as part of the cost of participating in the market. Rather than allowing the racist business owner to go out of business, the law has the perverse effect of keeping the business open and so limiting the market for more morally upright businesses.
In the current lawsuit, businesses are at risk of losing the right to solve a problem that, arguably, they have at least a small role in creating by selling guns to all purchasers.
If, however, businesses had more freedom to serve or not serve customers as they saw fit, then there is at least a chance that gun violence could be curtailed by responsible business owners not selling to those who seem to be a threat to self or others. Yes, this might mean as well that the racist business owner wouldn’t sell to ethnic minorities or secular progressive business owners refuse service to Christians (and before you ask, yes, it happens. I know because I have been denied service because I’m a priest).
The question though is this: On a day-to-day level, who is the best guardian of the peace? Orthodox social thought would suggest it is the person or companies closest to the problem.
In Christ,
+Fr Gregory

Most of Life is Not Under My Control

Political decisions are rarely straightforward or simple. This seems especially to be the case in what National Review‘s Victor Davis Hanson calls our “Manichean” political age. He makes a point about Trump voters that I think has a broader importance for our political life. He writes:

…there are understandably legitimate differences in conservative attitudes toward Trump, the first U.S president without prior political or military experience and service. But should such acrimony extend to the Trump voter?

In attributing moral or ethical laxity to Trump voters, Never Trumpers sidestep the argument that in a Manichean world, not voting for Trump was a de facto vote for the alternative — a likely 16-year Obama-Clinton continuum. Is condoning Trump’s antics by default the moral equivalent of its practical antithesis: ensuring a Supreme Court, economy, and foreign policy that would, in conservatives’ views, radically injure millions of Americans for a generation?

If it were really unethical or foolhardy to vote for Trump, is it by extension far more unethical toserve Trump? In other words, are H. R. McMaster, Jim Mattis, John Kelly, Betsy DeVos, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pompeo far more morally suspect for empowering such a president, in a fashion that outweighs their principled notions of serving the country?

Is it still sustainable to suggest that Trump is not a conservative but a dangerous liberal or demagogic wolf in conservative sheep’s clothing? The doctrinaire conservative Heritage Foundation now claims that two-thirds of its proverbial 334 conservative agenda items have been already met by Trump — and at a pace far faster than that achieved even by former president Reagan.

Casting a vote means accepting trade-offs. Often this means tolerating policies or character traits that we find misguided, offensive or even evil.

In the face of this, I can decide not to vote. But not voting doesn’t exempt me from moral responsibility for the outcome of an election. Deciding to not decide is, after all, to still make a decision as youth ministers everywhere remind their young charges.

What I need to always keep in mind is that life is made up of many moving pieces, some of which are on fire, and most of which are not under my control.

It is this last point–that most of life isn’t under my control–that makes Christian witness in the Public Square complicated, often frustrating, controversial and deficient, but always interesting and challenging.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

“Poverty porn” awards poke fun at charity stereotypes

“Poverty porn” awards poke fun at charity stereotypes Martin Morse Wooster, Philanthropy Daily The hopeless people in these ads aren’t people; they’re objects of our pity, who can never change or improve their station in life: “Poverty porn” awards poke fun at charity stereotypes | Philanthropy Daily

Coercion, Paternalism, and The Common Good

In his recent review of The Once and Future Liberal for The Gospel Coalition, [author and former Obama White House staffer, Michael] Wear (sort of) critiques identity politics, lamenting the fact that “identity politics empowers people to speak for others without their consent.” Yet in the same article he suggests, “We ought to see our fates as inextricably linked with the fate of our neighbors – and act politically on their behalf.”

This gets to the heart of the problem with the Love Your Neighbor strategy. Our allegedly loving act of selflessly voting on behalf of our neighbors is speaking for our neighbors without their consent. It naively assumes that there is an identifiable, agreed-upon common good in our current political environment. This mindset is also highly patronizing towards others by assuming that we have a better understanding of what is best for our neighbors than they do.

We simply do not agree upon what the common good is in America. Acting politically on our neighbors’ behalf is ultimately one tribe’s (or coalition of tribe’s) vision of the common good versus another’s, carried out by means of the coercive power of the State. Whoever can garner 50.1% of the vote gets to coerce the other 49.9% into abiding by the other tribe’s vision of the common good whether the 49.9% of our neighbors believe it to actually be “good” or not. Even if our neighbor abhors the “good” we have forced upon them through our loving act of voting for their good, they’ll just have to live with it and accept it as the blessing from God we believe it to be.

Practically speaking, what does it even look like to vote for the good of the community motivated by love rather than individualistic self-interest anyway? Would the loving thing be to take a poll and vote with the majority of our community even if it were to compromise our sincerely held beliefs? Or do we go against the majority of the community because we know what they desire will actually harm them? The “community” calls that hate.

 

Physicians’ Liberty at Risk?

In a recent forum for Democrats running for Wisconsin governor, the current Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction Tony Evers offered this solution to providing health care for those in urban areas; mandatory physician residencies.

“I believe the state of Wisconsin, and we can do this relatively easily, we should provide subsidies to any physician when they go into their residency that they have to serve time in an urban hospital. We need to subsidize and, in some cases, compel and direct residencies and have people in residencies for physicians.”

While I don’t want to minimize the health care needs of those in urban areas (or rural areas for that matter), compelling physicians to practice in underserved areas is simply wrong.

It also opens the door to the state compelling physicians to offer (or not offer) medical care against their best medical judgment. We’ve seen in Canada, the UK and other places that health care providers are obligated to assist in abortion or euthanasia or other services in violation of their conscience and/or best professional judgment.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Wealth & Poverty in St Luke

Recently, I posted an essay on Acton’s Transatlantic Blog reflecting on the economic implications of the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s recent translation of the New Testament. After reading my essay (David Bentley Hart’s Gospel of Cass Division), a friend of mine shared observation from his seminary New Testament professor that I think helps set the context for Jesus’ comments about wealth.

During the New Testament era, keeping the various laws of ritual purity was expensive and so beyond the economic reach of all but the wealthiest members of the Jewish community. We get hints of the economic burden of the Law in several places. The first, and maybe most notably, is in Luke 2:24 where Mary and Joseph offer “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (NKJV) in thanksgiving for the birth of Jesus. Historically, this was the minimally acceptable offering under the Law and so the typical offering of the poor who couldn’t afford either a bull or a sheep.

Another notable example is the widow in Luke 21:1-4:

And He [Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, ‘Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.’

The critique of the wealthy is clear. Yes, they offer great sums of money. However, they do so not because they are generous but because they are able to do so with relatively little adverse economic impact. The widow, however, has very little money and so the more extravagant gifts and sacrifice necessary for the purification of serious sins are beyond her reach. Like the Mary and Joseph, all she can offer is the bare minimum and so cannot free herself from any weightier sins.

But the wealthy? They can buy ritual purity that is beyond the reach of the poor. For the rich, forgiveness and reconciliation of even the most serious of their sins is ready to hand. But the poor remain estranged from God because of their poverty!

Knowing that reconciliation with God under the Law was conditioned by personal wealth helps us make better sense of Jesus’ comment earlier in Luke 20:46-47.

Then, in the hearing of all the people, He said to His disciples, ‘Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.’

The wealthy are castigated then not for being wealthy as such but for using their wealth to create and perpetuate a two-tiered religious system in which because of their poverty the poor are excluded from intimacy with God.

Compounding the injustice even further, the various sacrifices need for ritual purity had become central to the economic system surrounding the Temple. It is as a sign that He has come not simply to correct this spiritual and economic injustice but overthrow it. “Then He went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in it, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house is a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves’” (Luke 19:45-46).

Jesus comes to replace a system in which access to God is a function of wealth. Worse, acquiring the different sacrificial offerings gas becomes the heart of what in another context would be a morally legitimate system of free exchange. In effect, merchants are making a profit from a system that imposes an economic burden on those who would be reconciled with God on a spiritual level and re-integrated into the community on a social level.

In the events leading up to the cleanings of the Temple (Luke 19:1-10), we meet a man intimately involved in the economic injustice at the heart of the Roman Empire–the tax collector Zacchaeus. Though he works for the Romans–and so has placed himself outside the Jewish community–he nevertheless has access to Jesus and so grace. For this reason Zacchaeus “the sinner” (v. 7) stands, like Jesus Himself, as “a sign of contradiction” (Luke 2:34, Douay Rheims) for those who would limit ritual purity to the wealthy and the powerful.

Aware that he has committed injustices against his fellow Jews, Zacchaeus is willing to make amends: “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold” (v. 8). Two things are noteworthy here.

First, Zacchaeus doesn’t offer alms (which was a requirement for all Jews) but as a sacrifice for the harm he has done. He does this outside the formal sacrificial system to the Temple.  It isn’t a Temple priest but Jesus who both receives his offering and declares the sacrifice efficacious. “Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.’”

Offering a sacrifice for sin is no longer limited to the priests in the Temple. Now, even those outside the community, those who are ritually impure (“sinners and tax collector”) are able to offer sacrifice. That Jesus, Who is not a member of the Temple priesthood, receives the sacrifice undermines the economic system that reinforces the religious authority of the wealthy. at the expense of the poor. With the coming of Jesus, the poor are no longer on the margins of Jewish society. They too have access to God and the forgiveness of their sins.

Immediately after the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus tells the parable of the talents. This serves to reinforce and extend the spiritual/economic lesson. Once again, the question is that of the right use of wealth. Troubling for critics of the free market, the moral legitimacy of profit is assumed. And yet to understand the parable as a New Testament endorsement of capitalism is an anachronistic reading of the text.

Jesus purpose in telling the story is to correct the many who wrongly “thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately.” Like the other passages in Luke, the concern is with announcing the end of an economic and spiritual system in which wealth is used to restrict the access of those on the social or economic margins of society from the Kingdom of God.

This chapter reaches a crescendo when in verses 28-40 Jesus enters Jerusalem not as a wealth King on a magnificent horse but as a poor man riding on a donkey. The symbolism isn’t lost on either the crowds or the Pharisees who “called to Him from the crowd, ‘Teacher, rebuke Your disciples'” (v. 39). Entering as He does on a donkey, “the foal of an ass” (Matthew 21:5 in Luke, “a colt”), Jesus announces a new dispensation in which the wealthy are no longer able to claim–and enforce–an exclusive right of access to God and His blessings.

Unfortunately, for all the enthusiasm with which He is greeted Jerusalem is unable to grasp the true meaning of what Jesus has accomplished.

Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”(Luke 19: 41-42).

The Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown in his commentary of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke (The Birth of the Messiah) argues that a central message of Luke’s Gospel is that (among others) those excluded from the Jewish community because of poverty have now become the privileged witnesses to the Kingdom of God. To understand this as a proto-Marxist statement is as anachronistic as seeing the Parable of the Talents as an endorsement of the modern, free market.

Instead, Brown argues that in St Luke’s telling, economic poverty no longer excludes people from communion with God. It is this that raises, or maybe better, reveals, the dignity of the poor. They too have access to God. And just as God has done, the wealthy are obligated to extend grace to the poor. This grace isn’t limited to material assistance alone; it also must include respect. Philanthropy, no matter how generous, that fails to respect the dignity of the person falls short of what is required by God. In other words, it is unacceptable for out charity to leave the poor in undignified circumstances. Charity that keeps the poor, poor and so dependent, is unacceptable because it replicates the same economic, social and spiritual condition that Jesus came to overturn.

While good in itself, easing the burden of the poor is simply not enough. We fail the poor when we leave them poor. The reason is that wealth has a purpose: it is meant to protect human dignity, to foster human flourishing and serve the person’s growth in holiness.

Neither wealth nor the wealthy as such are condemned in the New Testament. If this were not the case, alleviating the poverty of the poor would be a sin.

What is condemned, however, is not wealth as such but (I would suggest) the willingness of the wealth (with some notable exceptions like Zacchaeus and a few others like Joseph of Arimathea in Luke and Nicodemus in John’s Gospel) to use their wealth to keep others from the Kingdom of God.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Video: Consumerism & Asceticism

Boston Fellows, “a nine-month fellowship for young professionals to cultivate the insights and spiritual habits necessary for meaningful vocation, in a cohort of peers, spiritual leaders, and professional mentors, through their local church,” made my Acton lecture on consumerism and asceticism into a video.

Thank you to Rev Kelly Madden for his kindness and willingness to make this happen!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory