Lesson 6: How Did We Get Here?

Super WealthyAbout fifty years ago, Harvey Cox wrote an article entitled something like “The Free Market as God.” I remember participating in one rather intellectual discussion of it. That was about it.

Things have changed. Nowadays all sorts of people are lamenting that wealth has become god. And they are not advocating an abstract hypothesis but a reality that they think endangers our democratic culture. I heard this in just about every response to the last two lessons. Pope Francis goes so far that he frequently states this economy kills. What has happened?

We might start by considering the economy as one of the principalities, powers, and authorities that St. Paul describes controlling the working of this world. Others could include politics, education, family, civil government, science, etc. Each of these has its proper function in relationship with all the others. However, when any begins playing god and asks the others to serve it, everything gets screwed up.

The Christian voice in a secular democratic society might see this happening when the values of the economy trump all others. Christians could live with a capitalist system if the values of the other authorities are given proper priority. They have trouble, however, if meaningful human action is reduced to the self-interested pursuit of profit alone, a sort of survival of the fittest competition that God supposedly uses for the common good through the free market. Gone is any human responsibility for ethical behavior. Whatever happens in this world becomes God’s will.

With no sense of meaning and purpose except the economic, people soon move from saying money allows you to do things to insisting money allows you to do anything you want. Profit becomes the only goal; wealth the only standard.

It is in this context that Pope Francis claims the economy kills. It is not that the economy itself kills but that the economy by itself allows murder. A “survival of the fittest” competitive economy has no reason to feed a hungry man. The motivation must come from the values and priorities of other authorities.

Actually, the Pope might contend our society has distorted the proper understanding of an economy by reducing all to the “market sector.” Originally the economy referred to the way a society managed the household in order to produce ample provisions so that all would have enough. Catholic social teachings see two sectors: the market economy focused on money and wages and the caring economy focused on parenting and nurturing children, assisting the elderly, sustaining the weak and handicapped, etc. The latter traditionally was esteemed but unpaid service that was deemed necessary for maintaining a healthy society.

Until fairly recent times, the wage economy was supposed to serve the caring economy. People participated in the market economy in order to support their families. You often heard that one adult wage earner should be able to support one caregiver.

Nowadays we have elevated the money economy so that it controls and even exploits the caring economy. The most vulgar way we did this was to associate dignity with pay. We pretended we were respecting caregivers by paying them, but then made sure they were paid little. The result has been that those who manage finances are given tremendous wealth and those who serve people often live on the edge of poverty.

Jesus taught that things fall back into their proper places and humane priorities are restored when we place the Kingdom of God first. Paul said salvation will come when Christ is recognized as the highest authority and all others function as God intended. We certainly do not live in a Christian society, but we can try to provide checks and balances so no authority demands the kind of entitlement that allows it to exploit others. The Christian voice always advocates for everyone receiving enough. I’ll try to examine some ways we can do that in the next weeks.

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3 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Lupe Andrade says:

    This week’s lesson has touched a nerve, as least in me. I find it tragic that worth is measured in how much you have, rather than how much you are in yourself, or give to others. Selfishness, greed and cruelty towards others has become commonplace, with children measuring their parents in terms of what they have and what they provide in worldly goods, rather than in love, kindness, effort or care. Admiration has become prefaced with equations of wealth: “He is wonderful! So rich, so successful!” Power and wealth are also being equated. This comes with contempt for those who are not wealthy or choose to pursue professions -such as Human Rights advocates- that do not produce wealth. This contempt toward the “undeserving poor” created the phenomenon, just now being uncovered and denounced, of wealthy and powerful people becoming -almost routinely- predators and abusers (starting with D. Trumo), because their wealth empowered them and was and still is, a passport to impunity. Friendship? An expendable and transient phenomenon. Chastity and fidelity? Laughable antique traits, almost indecent. Dedication to those less fortunate? A chimera, a waste of time. Lying? Alternate facts. Pardoning oneself? a clear adjunct to power. Separating immigrant children from their parents? Something they “deserve” because they are poor and desperate. Yes, dear Fritz, so emphasize this inversion of values, this materialization of intrinsic worth, this disparagement of love and care and friendship and selflessness, rail against the equation of money and intrinsic worth. With love, Lupe

  2. Paul Wildman says:

    ‘The ultimate pathology of capitalism is that it sees social production as an adjunct to material production (which is then seen as an adjunct to financial production) rather than the other way round.’ David Graeber ‘The revolt of the caring classes’ 2018
    (from your lesson) Catholic social teachings see two sectors: the market economy focused on money and wages and the caring economy focused on parenting and nurturing children, assisting the elderly, sustaining the weak and handicapped, etc. The latter traditionally was esteemed but unpaid service that was deemed necessary for maintaining a healthy society.

    Fritz this distinction you make (seen abstractly in the above Marxist quote) is spot on and goes back to 500BC to Aristotle how distinguished Chrematistics (love of money) and Oikonomia (care of the household and those who sail in her! Home economics – this comes down to us as Oikonomics/Economics) – usually undertaken by women in Ancient Greece. My Economics degree was on the former whereas now there are basically only financial economics courses avail and my old Economics faculty is no more only ‘Business’ which is all about profit – Univ of Queensland.

    Ciao paul

  3. John Myers says:

    One aspect of this lesson that troubles me is that we tend to ascribe personification to something called “The Economy” in reference to a free market as if it is evil on its own. Any economy has no power except that of the people who make buy and sell decisions. People make the choices. It is the person in the mirror we need to address. The exception is a command economy in which a dictator, despot, or committee decide to artificially change a market economy to suit their sensibilities. But it is still the entity that made teh decisions that is responsible for the result. The economy does not kill, the people who leave others behind to die in pursuit of greed, envy, or coveting do that very well on their own.

    I also fear many of the political terms we ascribe to an economy – the issue of ‘fairness’ as an example. This term is relational and only has meaning in a comparison setting – i.e., fair when compared to ………what is fair? Matthew 20:1-16 might apply well at this point. The parable of the workers in the vineyard also is tough to swallow in the spiritual sense (deathbed converts) as we ponder fairness. Grace, not deeds. In this world we love deeds and have a hard time with grace.

    In God’s world wealth means nothing, yet in mans world it seems to mean everything. We use it assuage our guilt with the poor and it is such a poor substitute – I agree, it is downright mean and shameful. Only love will solve the problems of this world. Love does not come in a wallet.

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