Very, very random thoughts on money and greed

11 Jun
"The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them"

“The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”

This is just a post ruminating on an aspect of our sinful nature. There are lots of things coalescing in my mind right now regarding the topics of money and greed. I will admit that I need a lot of help in this area.

The other day Lutheran blogger Gene Veith noted this (here):

“The pope’s right-hand man has essentially declared that free market economics is incompatible with Catholicism.  Speaking at a conference entitled “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism,” Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, drawing on statements from Pope Francis, said that the free market economy “kills” and oppresses the poor.”

Among other things, Veith asks what seems like good and pertinent questions here:

“I’m curious about the Roman Catholic cult of the poor, and I hope some Catholic readers will explain it.  Is the goal to help the poor escape poverty?  If so, surely free market policies deserve credit for the improvement of life in the developing nations in the last few decades, including virtually eliminating starvation.  Or is poverty seen as spiritually and morally good in itself, as in the vows of poverty required by religious orders?  In this view, poverty would also become an occasion for the non-poor to exercise the Seven Works of Corporal Mercy, which are seen as good works that can help a person gain merit for God’s grace.  See this.  In that case, poverty is to be treasured and venerated, not treated as something to escape.”

Recently in our local paper, the Star Tribune, there was a rather prescient and harrowing editorial entitled “Diminuendo: the dying sound of stewardship among the ruling class”. Here is a line that will jump out at you.

Hypocritical or not, WASP values are a thing of the past. When the stock market collapsed in 1929, the bankers responsible leapt off buildings in shame and despair. In the aftermath of the 2008 mortgage crisis, banks too big to fail and their too-powerful-to-jail CEOs passed on their losses to taxpayers and sheltered their gains.

Not that men killing themselves over guilt is good, but perhaps capitalism had better effects in the past insofar as it was held in check by commitments to things like faith, family, and the traditional morality that went along with that. Speaking critically of some conservative politicians, Rod Dreher writes the other day in this post:

“The point I’m getting at here is that there is something utopian about libertarian-conservative plans to devolve decision-making and autonomy to people whose lives are so chaotic — in part through their own bad choices, but also because they grew up in a more permissive society that left them particularly vulnerable to their own weaknesses, and the weaknesses of their parents — that they demonstrably cannot handle it. We will always need a paternalistic state to a certain degree. I don’t see how an honest reckoning of our social condition can conclude otherwise.”

He quotes David Brooks saying:

“…conservatives should not be naïve about sin. We are moving from a world dominated by big cross-class organizations, like public bureaucracies, corporations and unions, toward a world dominated by clusters of networked power. These clusters — Wall Street, Washington, big agriculture, big energy, big universities — are dominated by interlocking elites who create self-serving arrangements for themselves. Society is split between those bred into these networks and those who are not. Moreover, the U.S. economy is increasingly competing against autocratic economies, which play by their own self-serving rules.”

Leaping off of this, Dreher writes, it seems to me quite perceptively…

“Absolutely — and this is a point I made strongly in my book Crunchy Cons. Conservatives find it very easy to see how naive liberals are about Lust and its deleterious consequences for individuals and societies. I’m speaking broadly here, but in general, liberals tend to see no problem with it as long as all parties are consenting, and they tend to frame objections to it as moral fault (e.g., repression, hatred of the body, etc.).

Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to be awfully naive about Greed, and its deleterious consequences for individuals and societies. I’m speaking equally broadly here, but in general, they tend to seen no problem with it as long as all parties have freely consented to the economic activity, and they tend to frame objections to it as moral fault (e.g., class warfare).

Both sides, it seems to me, tend toward naivete about power. Liberals are prone to be credulous about the concentration of power in the government, and overly suspicious of power in the hands of private business, and conservatives are the exact opposite. In truth, a just society requires both to check each other. Any time you have a concentration of power, you have the likelihood that it will be abused.”

Of course while most traditional Christians have tended to be politically conservative of course they do see a problem with greed. What is so notoriously difficult about this question though is that it seems so much more subjective. Sexual sins often seem to have a very black and white quality about them – there are some things that we can all agree are evil, based on the external act (even as yes, Christ uncomfortably puts the spotlight on our deepest motives especially here) On the other hand, what about greed? It might seem absolutely clear to us that a particular action is unjustifiable – obviously driven by greed. But then we realize – or at least allow ourselves to be convinced – that it is not…. There is a rational explanation, and one really should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Which then puts me in mind of this comment from Rod Dreher about St. Louis archbishop Robert Carlson and what this means for Rome (yes, I know I am jumping all over here – and no, I really don’t know where this is finally going other than to invite readers to give me some concrete guidance in thinking about all of this):

….moral and spiritual corruption persists in the hierarchy. Remember that in 2012, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City was found guilty of shielding a priest who was discovered in 2010 collecting child pornography. The Vatican continues to allow Bishop Finn to serve. Building a fancy bishop’s palace is grounds for removal, but a conviction for shielding a pedophile priest who photographed the genitals of the laity’s children is not.

I guess it’s nice that the bishop’s palace is seen as a clear example of “going too far” (Abraham and Job were rich – but perhaps they had come upon their wealth through more appropriate means and also were more willing to use it to serve and help others?), but yes, Dreher’s point seems rather obvious does it not?*

futureuscoverBack to the evils of capitalism.  Of course, there is also all the news that has been caused by Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”… I noticed that First Things editor R.R. Reno has read the book and done a series of posts on it (see here for the latest).

And I also noticed that the technology and culture guru Jaron Lanier, the author of “Who Owns the Future” and a man I have come to respect quite a bit, says this about the book (here):

“Yeah, I looked at that book and my first reaction was, I’m too lazy to have done this but I’m so glad he did all this work of gathering all this data. And there was a sense of like, duh, of course, I mean everybody kind of knows this. And yet for those who hold a different belief, they’re gonna henpeck his data and try to find holes in it, and I suggest that’s what’s going on right now to try to create doubt about it.”

In reading Lanier’s book I was amazed at the amount of insider knowledge and insight that he has when it comes to those who exercise power and influence in the world. I highly recommend reading his book – even if his prescriptions are ultimately unworkable, I don’t think many have been able to really question his diagnoses…

And of course technology combines with capital like never before these days – information technology! – to create a very potent mix. You can read more about that in the paper I recently wrote for my library technology presentation (see the last post or here for a bit from that), but I’ll just leave you with this intriguing quote from computer scientist Martin Ford: “…were the Luddites wrong?  Or just two hundred or so years too early?” (p. 48, The Lights in the Tunnel, 2009)

So where’s the theology in all of this? Again, Christ overcomes the world. May He overcome the world in us.


*He goes on to write at the end of the post: “I think about Dante, one of the greatest Catholics who ever lived, who spared nothing in his excoriation of clerical corruption, all the way to the Pope, but who never wavered in his devotion to the Church. Surely one doesn’t have to have the intellect of Dante to understand that attacking the despicable behavior of priests and bishops, and demanding that they be held accountable, does not make one disloyal to the Catholic Church, but can even be a sign of greater loyalty. It is in the interest of the hierarchy to portray all critics as motivated by anti-Catholic bias, but it is not in the interest of the Church, and it is certainly not in the interest of children and families who were victims.”

And of course, there is also this from the Vatican as well. Seriously? Islamic prayers and readings? Oye.

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Posted by on June 11, 2014 in Uncategorized


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