Thursday, May 17, 2012

(But how is the Kingdom of God like that?)

(I just like that picture, is all....)

I'm not a fan of economics as it is discussed in the public arena; and before I'm through, it may be that illustration has something to do with what I have to say.  Or not.  As I say, I really just like it....

This is sticking in my mental craw only because the entire notion of "wealth creation" is so ludicrous:

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond accused company bosses over the weekend of “whingeing” while Foreign Secretary William Hague said they should stop complaining on get on with the business of wealth creation.
It sounds substantive, doesn't it?  "Wealth."  It sounds like something tangible, something permanent, something you can bring out and show to the neighbors:  "This is wealth.  I have wealth.  And I created it."

Shades of idolatry and competing with the Creator.

I often try to explain to my students the distinction between abstract and concrete.  The law, I say, is abstract (and I teach Kafka's parable "Before the Law.")  Beauty, I say, is abstract.  I cannot bring these things into the room and show them to you and say, "Now, next time you see it, you'll know what it is."  Wealth, of course, is abstract.  But it seems so much less abstract than "value."  Value, of course, is the true basis of an economic system.  If you value an object, it is by definition "valuable."  If you have enough of that object, you might even be said to have "wealth."

But the dragon sitting on the pile of gold under the mountain in Beowulf (or under the Last Lonely Mountain; Tolkien stole from good sources) may have wealth, may have valuable objects:  but to remove them is to incur the dragon's wrath.  And really, what does the dragon do with it all day except sleep on it and note when the smallest piece goes missing?  It is a picture of wealth (the treasure horde is almost priceless, it is so valuable.  And what an irony that is, eh?); but what possible good is it?

It is not value, because it is only valued if it is on a market.  It is wealth, this pile of gold things.  Wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. But it is only wealth if it is of some value; and the value of the treasure horde in Beowulf costs the king his life, and the kingdom it's existence.   And yet, of what value is it if disturbing it means you awaken the destructive wrath of the dragon and lose your king and your kingdom in the process.  Consider these words from Beowulf:

So this bad blood between us and the Swedes,
this vicious feud, I am convinced,
is bound to revive; they will cross our borders
and attack in force when they have found out
that Beowulf is dead.

As the poem drily notes a few lines later:

Such was the drift of the dire report
that gallant man delivered.  He got little wrong
in what he told and predicted.

Wealth is substantive.  It is also costly.

But is wealth really substantive?  If your wealth was in deutschmarks in Weimar Germany, you had almost no wealth at all; indeed, no one would apply the term to your paper money.  A Twilight Zone episode posited a future four gold thieves entered through the miracle of suspended animation, only to find in the end that gold was no longer valuable, but worthless.  It was, to them, the most concrete form of wealth imaginable; but only because it was valued at one time.

Wealth is when you have something many other people want, and which they are willing to make an exchange for.  But it is not created, and it is easily destroyed.  What is created is the desire for the thing; what is easily destroyed is its value to those who desire it.

To put the matter in Biblical terms, and in the pithy version of Dom Crossan:

The Kingdom of God is like this

A trader sold all his merchandise to buy a single pearl

(But how is the Kingdom of God like that?)

John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus (New York: HarperSanFranciscso, 1994, 1st ed.), p. 93

How, indeed?  Consider:  if you sell all your merchandise (the canonicals prefer the more extreme "all he had") just to buy one thing, what do you do now?  If the pearl is metaphorical, it seems like a spiritual enterprise, and we are with Eliot in "a condition costing not less than everything."  But Eliot didn't mean everything material; he meant something far more metaphysical, something abstract.  Then, however, the interpretation runs up against another canonical saying that is quite familiar:  "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he loses his own soul?"  Can you do one without the other?  Careful; the answer may well depend on what you mean by "gain."  Simple asceticism is not the answer either, in other words.  Keep the two in balance, the world and your soul, and then where are you?  If you sell all you have to acquire a single pearl, what do you do now?  You have gained the whole world.  Now what?  Sell it for food, for pots and pans, for shelter?  Or, in Crossan's version, stop trading and keep it?

Then what?  Are you wealthy now?  Or the poorest person alive?

Let me lengthen the discussion by appending this post which I've been working on; it runs along the same lines, and this isn't a carefully edited essay, I can be sloppy:

What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of God.
Even the anchorite who meditates alone,
For whom the days and nights repeat the praise of God,
Prays for the Church, the Body of Christ incarnate.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together
But every son would have his motor cycle,
 And daughters ride away on casual pillions.

I had an interesting experience with this target audience and their fear of scarcity that I'd like to share.

During the Great Blackout of 2003 the area in which I lived got a warning and short reprieve prior to losing power along with everyone else.  An unusual temporary loss of power on a sunny day on which that shouldn't have happened had people turning to the television and radio for an explanation, where they learned the entire eastern seaboard and mid-atlantic states had gone dark without explanation. Panic began to build as people raced to stores to stock up on supplies.

Since my car was low on gas and I lived in a semi-rural area I headed to a local station to fill up. The scene unfolding there was interesting and bordering on surreal. Long lines had already begun to form, and it was quickly apparent that there were two distinctly different responses to this crisis. My county was home to both very rich and very poor. The more well-to-do individuals in larger and more expensive cars were visibly frightened. Not only that, they jostled for better position and furtively looked over their shoulder lest someone attempt to steal their stuff before they completed their task and sped off.

The less well off, however, were treating this incident as an occasion for kindness and friendly outreach; even celebration. A group of young adults had formed in one corner of the parking lot and was engaged in excited talk around their dilapidated vehicles. One young lady in a dress was twirling happily. People in cut-offs and tee shirts chatted amiably with each other at the pumps.  Behind me in a beat-up pick-up truck two aged hippies laughed and joked continuously, making light of the situation with outbursts like "Damn terrorists anyhow!" Before leaving I saw them outside of their vehicle patiently helping an elderly couple who were having difficulty fueling up..

About twenty minutes later we lost power along with much of the rest of the country for the next few days. When it returned, our governor asked that people help transition the fragile system back online through conservation and to avoid using non-critical systems like air-conditioning. Again, there were two responses. Those neighbors of mine with little to spare were very conscientious about their energy use because it was important for them that everyone enjoy some crucial power rather than risk it failing again. In the wealthy white-flight town near my home (famously a welcome haven for Dick Cheney even after the many revelations of misconduct and the turning of the war) however, there was a fierce resistance to conservation in the restaurants. People mocked the idea as being "for hippies" and they sure weren't going to listen to some damn Democrat governor. When a friend reminded his wealthy sister-in-law in that town of the the state's request to conserve when he noticed her use of her central air conditioning system she angrily responded that those suggestions were for "other people" - meaning, the poor, the less privileged, the dirty masses.

We've all probably had experiences similar to this. Behind all the striving for the most exclusive schools and chasing after wildly expensive kitchen gadgets and memberships to elite country clubs is a deep fear that at any moment it could all be taken away. Our current economic system and dominant culture fully endorses walling ourselves off with the happy illusion of materialism and has gotten so paranoid, in fact, that its members have gone from passively anesthetizing themselves to attacking and criminalizing the poor for being a reminder of unpleasant realities and for taking a few fallen crumbs around the margins.
 My thought processes are anything but orderly.  I was thinking about using this comment from windhorse to set up a long and bifurcated post on Eduardo Saverin and the theology of scarcity, when I opened my blog to find I'd already posted on Saverin.  Rather than create a new post that cleverly and subtly ties into that post, I decided to abandon artifice and go for the jugular (as an Old English professor taught me).  In other words, do something completely different.

Now, where is that jugular....?

I've encountered this same phenomena before.  I've mentioned that where I live is across an interstate highway (up to about 24 lanes, now) from some of the wealthiest enclaves in Houston (it ain't the Hamptons, but wealth in Houston is nothing to sneeze at).  A new grocery store opened up within a half-mile of my domicile (more or less, and as the crow flies), designed to attract people from both sides of the freeway, which it has done very successfully.

One secret of the store's success has been an off-duty police officer, in full uniform, standing outside the store at peak hours.  When the store opened, an e-mail almost immediately flashed around the neighborhoods about a purse theft from a parked car (why any woman would leave her purse in her car was never explained.  The story may or may not have been apocryphal.).  The store responded with the conspicuous presence of security cameras on portable platforms (they wanted the visibility, not the expense of actually installing the things in the parking lot.  You've seen video from such cameras on the web; they're pretty much useless in small stores; imagine them in parking lots), and lots of police outside the doors at all times.  People calmed down, the cameras were removed, and the police presence is, by now, minimal.

But, you see, on our side of the freeway, we are all drug dealers and immigrants and poor and...well, you get the picture.  And this "side" of the freeway is, according to Census figures, one of the most racially diverse in a racially diverse city (Houston really isn't the white hegemony you might imagine it to be).  So I'm familiar with the paranoia that "they" want only to take what "we" have.

The irony is there is a grocery store in a much nicer neighborhood down the freeway on the "other" side, in amongst most of the middle-management (but well paid) oil executives in what has dubbed itself the "Energy Corridor."  The store has a bank branch in it, which bank has been robbed multiple times.  In broad daylight.  While all the wealthy white female shoppers were filling the aisle.

I don't think they keep an off-duty policeman in the parking lot there.  Funny, that.

There is a jugular here somewhere, I just know it.....

When we go grocery shopping we sometimes make a game of identifying the shoppers from the "other" side of the freeway:  they uniformly act as if the store were theirs by right of privilege, and are usually the rudest and least aware of other shoppers in the store.  I've seen this phenomenon, too, when I worked retail in an independent bookstore down in the Energy Corridor.  Some customers were always convinced their money made them special.

What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your own soul?  And what is your soul?  A metaphysical construct first argued into existence by Socrates?  Or that which makes humans both uniquely human and individual, and uniquely part of a greater whole?  What life, indeed, have you, if you have not life together?   And which is better to be created:  community, or wealth?  Which, in the end, is more valuable?

My other favorite "economic" notion is "creative destruction."  Which always makes me think of Gary Oldman in "The Fifth Element."  Creative destruction is admirable, so long as it doesn't affect you. And where would Zorg have been, if the good Father had not felt some sense of human community?

It's times like this I remember economics started out as a branch of ethics.  Of course, it almost immediately picked up utilitarianism and then went completely astray by trying to become a "science," but still....


  1. Windhorse12:50 PM

    What life have you if you have not life together?
    There is no life that is not in community,

    The verse is really provocative. Ribbon roads indeed. 

    You do a great job of laying out a clear case for community ultimately being more important than wealth, and of being key for wealth to have any value or make any sense (with Beowulf, fictional dragons, and a picture of Thor, no less, to satisfy the Nordic part of one's soul). In a related vein, in the ages-old chicken-and-egg argument between the primacy of labor and capital, the Catholic Church teaches the priority of labor, much to the chagrin of capitalists everywhere (the magisterium doesn't always get social issues wrong and I'm begrudgingly willing to give them their due....). 

    I think your argument could be appended to theirs to more fully flesh it out and illuminate the issue, such that labor is prior to capital and community is prior to and has primacy over both labor and capital. We're a tribal species living in an interdependent network with others and with the biosphere; our survival and prosperity depend on community, and not only our physical survival (saving each other from getting eaten by bears or getting together to plant and harvest) but our spiritual prosperity (learning compassion, teaching each other to embody higher spiritual energies). 

    History is pretty clear on the fact that when wealth allows members of society to isolate themselves from each other it can lead to all sorts of corrosions of the spirit like greed and paranoia, which in turn give birth to strife and oppression and even class warfare. 

    In other words, that thousand dollar blender is all fun and games until somebody gets their soul poked out. Or their McMansion sacked. 

    (I just like the picture, is all....)

    The picture is awesome! One can get their Marvel fix and their Norse fix in one place!

  2. Windhorse--

    I haven't lost your e-mail address; just been too busy on the side to respond yet.

    My friends will tell you I've become a lousy correspondent in my old age.

    As for the Marvel fix, I'm finally going to "The Avengers" this weekend, a promise to my daughter for her 20th birthday that we had to postpone. I fully expect to have a theological reflection of insidious intent when I return.

    "O do not ask 'What is it?'
    Let us go, and make our visit."

  3. Windhorse3:40 PM

    No problem re: the email. I wasn't even looking for correspondence, so you can rest easy, just wanted to drop you a short note. I've been a regular if quiet reader here for a loooong time and figured I owed to to you.

    As for the Marvel fix, I'm finally going to "The Avengers" this weekend, a promise to my daughter for her 20th birthday that we had to postpone. I fully expect to have a theological reflection of insidious intent when I return..

    Plenty of fodder for that. Hope in the face of certain destruction, the importance of loving thy Hulk, etc. In fact, the very premise of the movie sets out to prove your point about community being more important than wealth or individual status in the end. Wonder if Whedon's been reading your blog...?