Monday, October 17, 2011

The Dismal Science

In the land of mankind, conceived of as a pyramid, there are few at the top, and many at the bottom,” the congregation sang. “In the land of mankind, those at the top crush those at the bottom. Oh, people of the poor, people subjected to domination, what are you doing just standing there? The world of mankind has to be changed, so arise people, don’t stand still.
I like to remember that Malthus was an economist:

Supply-side' economics, where the focus is on the assumption of limited supply, continues to dominate economic thinking. Fear of scarcity is part of our way of thinking and, because of Scrooge's lost childhood, it is certainly part of Scrooge's psychology. One of the points Dickens is making though is that fear of scarcity and economic withdrawal can lead to the dangers of Ignorance and potential social unrest. A Christmas Carol is like the biblical Parable of the Talents, for nothing of importance will grow if talents are not used wisely. Dickens' work is in part a plea for a new and radical way of economic thinking, suggesting and imagining that at least as far as food supply is concerned it will be, and now is, possible to feed the nation. If not, then at least find a means of fair distribution of what supply does exist.
I start with Malthus because the linked essay, which is really quite good, is a study of Dickens' response to Malthus in A Christmas Carol as well as other works. It is clear to me we are seeing the Scrooging of the world economy in ways large and small. Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? If austerity isn't working, the answer is: more austerity!

Because, after all, we can't go on like this.

" A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature's mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work upon the compassion of some of her guests."
That's Malthus, but it's hard to see (or hear) what has changed in almost 200 years. The shorter version heard today is: "People are too damned expensive!" While that isn't as blunt as Scrooge's dismissal of the two gentlemen in his counting house, the sentiment is the same. The people today most publicly worried about this are the people with the least visible means of support, and the most time to be visibly fretting. They put me in mind of Sally Brown from Peanuts noting that everyone is worried about overpopulation, but nobody wants to leave.

It's always a problem, in other words, in which the solution should fall on someone else. So it's not that all people are too damned expensive; just the people I don't know well. Overpopulation is a problem, too; a problem for thee, but not for me. After all, now that I'm here, we can pull the ladder up and stop all those people from reproducing.

I mean, what's the point of being the 1% if you can't look down from eight stories up on the 99% who can't reach you?

This is theology of scarcity, again. And it doesn't have to be theological, to be a theology. Malthus was an Anglican curate, but if I labeled his thinking a "theology," it would be to say he had replaced the God of Abraham and Jesus with the false idol of the material world, a god nonetheless. So his is still a "theology," however crabbed and twisted. Do you think still I exaggerate?

Malthus asserted that Nature had a set natural limit on the population of plants and animals -- sparing of room and the nourishment to rear them. Two things did though keep the human population down : vice and misery ( Among plants and animals its effects are waste of seed, sickness, and premature death. Among mankind, misery and vice .) These vices and miseries and their agents of war, famine and disease were a necessary evil. In a later edition of his work in 1803 Malthus added moral restraint ( By moral restraint I mean a restraint from marriage, from prudential motives, with a conduct strictly moral... Delaying the gratification of passion from a sense of duty. ) This thought is surely in the mind of Dickens and indeed Scrooge when Scrooge lets go of his sweetheart, Belle. Scrooge once again is very reasoning in his argument. Discussing the world's attitude to poverty he says, "There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!"
Again, Scrooge sounds just like Herman Cain or Mitt Romney or anyone else who has spouted "Class warfare!" lately. I can't slip a piece of epistemological paper between them. And the purpose is always the same: we've got ours, and they want to take it from us, because there isn't any left for them!

Nor, of course, can there be. When resources are scarce, there is never enough to go around. But who says resources are scarce, except the people who have control over so much of them?

And what has this to do with Scrooge?

Scrooge's economics, largely based on those of Thomas Malthus, is isolationist and lacking any social dimension. Its mathematical equation of food production and population growth and its denial of human instincts all betray a rigid economic inhumanity.
Again, if that doesn't seem familiar, it should. Economics doesn't have to be so miserable, of course, but it so often is; or at least, it is so often used that way. We so easily prefer abstractions to people, because abstractions are so much more easily manipulated. And the economic models being pursued and promoted around the world seem determined to isolate the poor (however they are defined) and to exclude all social dimension because, well: people are too damned expensive!

And if this sounds like the same old song, it's because it is. Mary, the mother of Jesus, would have recognized it. She sang a different song:

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

It would make a fine theme song for the Occupy Wall Street Movement. And what about Elijah and the widow?
After a while the stream dried up, for there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go now to Zarephath, a village of Sidon, and stay there; I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ He went off to Zarephath, and when he reached the entrance to the village, he saw a widow gathering sticks. He called to her, ‘Please bring me a little water in a pitcher to drink.’ As she went to fetch it, he called after her, ‘Bring me, please, a piece of bread as well.’ But she answered, “As the Lord your God lives, I have no food baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a flask. I am just gathering two or three sticks to go and cook it for my son and myself before we die.’ ‘Have no fear,’ Elijah said, ‘go and do as you have said. But first make me a small cake from what you have and bring it out to me, and after that make something for your son and yourself. For this is the word of the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of flour will not give out, nor the flask of oil fail, until the Lord sends rain on the land.’ She went and did as Elijah had said, and there was food for him and for her family for a long time. The jar of flour did not give out, nor did the flask of oil, as the word of the Lord foretold through Elijah. 1 Kings 17:7-16 (REB)
And, of course, the ultimate vision of liberation:

“Come for water, all who are thirsty;
Though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat;
Come, buy wine and milk,
Not for money, not for a price.
Why spend your money for what is not food,
Your earnings on what fails to satisfy?
Listen to me and you will fare well,
You will enjoy the fat of the land.
Come to me and listen to my words,
Hear me and you will have life:
I shall make an everlasting covenant with you
To love you faithfully as I have loved David.
I appointed him a witness to peoples,
And you in turn will summon nations you do not know,
And nations that do not know you will hasten to you,
Because the Lord your God, Israel’s Holy One, has made you glorious.—Isaiah 55:1-5 (REB)

The world's vision of liberation is to gain all you can and then hold on to it as tightly as possible. Only when confronted with the symbol of Scrooge do we wonder about this goal; but even then, we convince ourselves we are not Scrooge, and we identify with Bob Cratchit, who, after all, didn't have it all that badly:

"Bob Cratchit was paid 10 shillings a week, which was a very good wage at the time... Bob, in fact, had good cause to be happy with his situation. He lived in a house not a tenement. His wife didn't have to work... He was able to afford the traditional Christmas dinner of roast goose and plum pudding... So let's be fair to Scrooge. He had his faults, but he wasn't unfair to anyone. The free market wouldn't allow Scrooge to exploit poor Bob... The fact that Bob Cratchit could read and write made him a very valuable clerk and as a result of that he was paid 10 shillings a week."
In modern times he would have had a refrigerator, too!

But the lesson Scrooge learns is the lesson woven through the Bible, and usually ignored in favor of more "spiritual" lessons, one where the focus is on "inner liberty."

More recently, [Pope Benedict] said, “it seems to me we need not theology of liberation, but theology of martyrdom,” and argued that the movement will become a valid theology “only when it refuses to accept power and worldly logic” and instead emphasizes “inner liberty.”
And what is that? Something so precious we cannot define it? Something so valuable we cannot imagine it? Perhaps....

You gather corn -- will you bury England under a heap of grain, or will you, when you have gathered, finally eat? You gather gold -- will you make your house-roofs of it, or pave your streets with it? That is still one way of spending it. But if you keep it, that you may get more, I'll give you more, I'll give you more... I'll give you all the gold you want -- all you can imagine -- if you can tell me what you'll do with it. You shall have thousands of gold pieces; thousands and thousands -- millions -- mountains, of gold: where will you keep them? Do you think the rain and dew would then come down to you, in the streams from such mountains which God has made for you, of moss and whine-stone? But it is not gold you want to gather! What is it? Greenbacks? No; not those neither. What is it then? Not gold, not greenbacks, not ciphers after a capital I? You will have to answer, after all, "No, we want, somehow or other, money's worth."
Money's worth is what we want. And what is that? We don't know, but we have to have it! And there is your economics, in a nutshell! The systematization of the pursuit of the ultimate abstraction: getting our money's worth! And what is that? No one can say, but everyone can agree it is the most important object of living, the summa of human existence!

And they say superstition is dead, and theology a waste of time. Hah!

There are streams in the desert. Not everything is grinding and grasping and chasing after empty terms. There is always hope in what seems to be a hopeless situation. Which brings me back to quoting myself:

The simple truth of the Scriptures, of the Gospels, of the Letters of Paul and Peter and James and all the others, even of the Revelation to John, is that the world you live in is quite literally the world you see. Change your sight, change your reality. There are streams in the desert, and they are part of the prophetic vision; but you have to look to see them. We could call it seeking our place of resurrection. It's a better concept than seeking our self-assured security.

Are we on the road to scarcity? Or do we live in a world of abundance, able to satisfy the needs of all?

You, as Jean-Paul Sartre would remind us, choose.
And to end with quoting a song:

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
and hear their death knells ringing;
When friends rejoice, both far and near,
how can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile
our thoughts to them are winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
how can I keep from singing?

I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smoothes
Since first I learned to love it:
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing:
All things are mine since I am His—
How can I keep from singing?

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