Economic Policy Absolutely Has a Moral Quality

“I would strongly urge Sen. Rubio to go back and reread ‘The Sermon on the Mount,’” de Blasio said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “Clearly, the core of Catholic teachings and Christian teachings talks about the economic realities that people face, and has for thousands of years.”“I’m surprised Mr. Rubio doesn’t understand that,” he added. (The Hill)

Bill DeBlasio Pope Francis Marc RubioMayor DiBlasio was responding, of course, to Senator Marco Rubio’s assertion that while, as Catholics, we must listen to the Pope in matters of faith and morals, but are free to disregard the pope in matters of politics and economics. DiBlasio cited scripture as proof, in Christian thinking, of the moral quality of economics and concern for the poor. Bill BiBlasio is right and I applaud his swift response!

Marco Rubio is absolutely wrong to assert that economics does not have a moral dimension and, so, is immune from the Magisterium of the Church; but it is not an original argument, as if Rubio were capable of one. The notion that economics is amoral was pushed in the early 2000’s by the Heritage Foundation and by certain right-leaning Catholic theologians as a push-back against social-justice oriented Catholics. Their aim was to give cover to the Republicans and Conservatives in the political debate; primarily, it was aimed at protecting George W. Bush in the midst of a reelection campaign.

One particular theologian wrote an article that was published in First Things at the time [I currently don’t have the name of the theologian or the article. My internet is limited at the moment. When I get more internet access, I’ll research to find the article. If someone else finds it first, let me know]. The theologian argued that economic policy was not a moral policy subject to the teaching authority of the Church, but a matter of prudential judgement. His argument was a theological sleight-of-hand.

In Catholic teaching, there are differing degrees of assent a Catholic has to make to assertions of faith and morals by the Church’s magisterium (teaching authority). Prudential judgement refers to a matter over which a person with an informed intellect and conscience is free, absent the magisterium’s interference, to choose the best course of action. But those judgments are not morally neutral, which is why an emphasis is placed on prudence. The Church emphasizes that such a judgment is made by a person with an informed intellect AND an informed conscience, because the course of action has to aim at a moral good or justice. When a judgment or course of action achieves an injustice, the judgment is either not very prudent at all, or the judgment, itself, has a morally negative quality. We have a responsibility, then, to assess the moral outcome of economic policy and the judgment behind the policy.

That is why Pope Francis is doing, as did Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI did before him. Social justice-oriented Catholics were doing just this during the 2004 Presidential campaign season, and they were citing both the assertions of Saint John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger at the time in doing so. Social justice-oriented Catholics citing the teaching authority of the Church in challenging American economic policy, at the time, is what moved Heritage Foundation and right-leaning Catholics to bend themselves into a pretzel to argue away the moral quality of economic policy. That is what Senator Marco Rubio (not to mention Senator Paul Ryan and other right-leaning Catholic politicians) build on when they challenge the Pope’s authority to make moral assertions about economic policy.

The heat is turned up at the moment and it will be interesting to see how things unfold. Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both challenged the justice of American economic policy; but the tone of their assertions emphasized a questioning of the prudence of  American economic policy. Saint John Paul II was satisfied reminding them of the just aim of economic policy. Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that the economy was supposed to serve the human person and society, not the other way around; again encouraging people to consider whether American economic policy is prudent and achieving the desired aim.

Pope Francis in tone, on the other hand, seems to be challenging the moral quality of American economic polity – the judgment – itself. In his encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis pointed out that free market, trickle-down economics has proven not to achieve the end it claimed to achieve. So the economic policy has already been established as imprudent. But Francis went on in his encyclical to argue the unjust imbalance in the effects of America’s free market economic policy; that some are profiting and hoarding at the direct expense of others. The assertion, then, is not just that policy makers made the wrong, i.e. imprudent, economic policy choices; but that the economic policy choices were aimed at unjust ends.

I can see, then, why those on the right are up-in-arms over Pope Francis’ encyclical and why they’re very intent on keeping control of their economic narrative in the wake of Pope Francis coming to the United States. I think, though, it is very important that those of us who are social justice-oriented need to join Pope Francis and work so much harder to wrestle control of that narrative away from them.

Morally Correct: or, Rebuke of Politically Correct

confederate-battle-flagSeveral times, this week, the term, politically correct kept popping up in the news; mostly around the question of the Confederate flag outside the South Carolina statehouse. A South Carolina state legislator used the term in opposing the flags removal; as did pro-Confederate Battle flag demonstrators outside the statehouse. A firefighter in Minnesota used the term in justifying why he mounted the Confederate Battle flag to the back of his fire engine for the Independence Day parade. It’s also implied in numerous memes circulating online social networks. Those calling opposition to the official display of the Confederate Battle flag politically correct are suggesting that their rights are being impinged by overly-authoritarian, politically-doctrinaire liberals. The implication is that displaying the Confederate Battle flag is an innocent expression of a common identity; and that taking a position against the flag is an assault on free expression, and on the common identity of those making the expression.
But look at all the things that right-wing politicos and their minions call, politically correct. In the vast majority of cases, what are called politically correct are the assertions that language or behavior that are demeaning, dehumanizing or dis-empowering to minority races, women or lgbt are wrong. In other words, calling an assertion politically correct is an effort to diffuse the moral quality of the assertion, rather than take responsibility for analyzing whether the moral assertion is correct. In other words, “I’m going to do or say whatever I want, no matter who it hurts, convincing myself it doesn’t hurt anyone at all, and you’re just being politically correct if you tell me I can’t.”
So it would be more accurate to say that what those on the right refer to as politically correct assertions are actually morally correct assertions. Morally correct because it is never morally okay to intentionally inflict harm on another person just to assert a personal liberty of your own; even if that liberty legally or politically exists. Everyone (except sociopaths) knows that instinctively. Where the equivocation is, in these cases, is in what constitutes a harm. It would behoove those who self-identify as conservatives, then, to step back and assess what moral quality might actually lie behind so-called politically correct assertions. Seriously ask yourself, “What harm to whom might actually be caused by my language or behavior that somebody is telling me is wrong?” If you don’t do that, then you’re being hypocritical when you confess a personal commitment to morality.
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Along the lines of morals and liberties, let’s chat for a minute about the claim that legalizing same-sex marriage somehow impinges on the religious liberty of those who oppose it. That’s been in the news a lot the last few weeks as well.
Most people who oppose the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling are religious people, some deeply so. I understand that. I also understand that the ruling was a shock to your sense of the world; because you get your sense of the world through the prism of your own faith, which says marriage solemnizes a covenant between a man and a woman. So what seems to be an attack on your sense of the world comes across, also, as a direct assault on your faith. As a consequence, you perceive that your religious liberty is under assault. Right-wing politicians, and politically-motivated right-wing faith leaders, are playing on that anxiety, suggesting that the State is going to come in and direct what your faith community believes or does: old-fashioned fear mongering.
What you’re forgetting is the very subjective nature of faith. While you, in your particular faith community, might have a particular worldview and understanding of what marriage is, individuals in other faith communities have other world views. Are you right and those who hold differing worldviews wrong? Maybe so. We’ll find out in the afterlife, I guess. But keep in mind that others believe they’re right and you’re wrong.

Who is to be the arbiter of that? In the case of same-sex marriage, those of you who oppose it acted as the arbiter. In declaring same-sex marriage a constitutionally-protected right, the Supreme Court effectively said you can’t be the arbiter for everyone. In other words, while you do have the right to believe what you want to and personally act on that belief within the confines of your faith community, you do not have a right to impose on others your own worldview. Others have their religious liberty too. So step back and stop hyperventilating over your religious liberty. Those entering same-sex marriages are not harming you or your liberty; but you asserting their marriages have no value harms them. You cannot assume moral power over those whose lives you disagree with for the same reason you cannot dismiss moral assertions about language or behave that does harm others as politically correct: doing either merely asserts your right to power over others. Period. And, by the way, desiring power over others while feeling vulnerable and claiming victim-hood when those you desire power over push back is usually a trait of a schoolyard bully.

Rick Perry and Feudalism

Rick Perry is out early in his 2016 Presidential bid touting the fact that, during his time as Governor, Texas produced jobs at a much higher rate than the rest of the country. Take-away message: “I’m the job creator.”

Let’s look at Texas’ job creation at that time. The dominant industry in Texas, for obvious reasons, is fossil fuel energy. During that time, the fossil fuel energy industry was benefiting from tremendous Federal tax breaks and subsidies aimed at encouraging them to expand domestic production. Texas’ dominant industry, then, was buoyed by Federal policy, not anything Rick Perry did.

Much of the actual job growth in Texas, however, was in the service industry or related industries supporting the energy business. Those jobs are low wage, keeping the workers in poverty or near poverty. That employers could employ workers for such meager wages was a result of State policy. Rick Perry, as Governor, can take responsibility for that. So the real take-away message: elect Rick Perry and he will promote a feudalistic economy employing hoards of surfs too dependent on the meager wages they’re fortunate to have to even think about trying to compete for the rare opportunities they might not get that would improve their incomes.

Obtaining a meaningful job that pays a living wage should not be like buying a lottery ticket and hoping for the best. Friends won’t let friends vote for Rick Perry.

My Rant on Marxism

One of the challenges, when deciding to post a blog, is to decide on a single issue to post about. I usually have a host of issues I’m thinking about at any given time and struggle to decide which is going to rise to the top as something to blog about. This time isn’t any different. I have some issues which I put on a list to blog about at another time. Rising to the top of my list are some thoughts I had been mulling over about the popular resurgence of communism/socialism as an effective response to our economic malaise and widespread economic inequality. In the meanwhile, I found myself insulted by a video shared in a group about anarchy and wanted to respond to it. Actually, I wasn’t really insulted, given that I wasn’t part of the original audience. But what to do when you’re listening to someone who’s convinced himself that he’s smarter than he is? The better part of the video was an attempt to clarify the philosophy of anarchy through an etymology lesson; a misleading clarification, at best. So I’m still left with settling in on a subject matter. Okay. I’m settling with my original choice. I’ll address anarchy later.

Shortly after the collapse of the economy and the start of the Great Recession, both socialists and communists were out in force on the streets in certain neighborhoods hawking their ideas. They hadn’t been that aggressive in marketing in the U.S. since the 1930s/1940s? Marxism (Communism and socialism are related, but not interchangeable, terms. For the purposes of this blog post, however, I’m just going to say Marxism. What I’m discussing is present in both, so there is no need to use both or bounce between each.) has never died out in academic circles in the U.S., even if it did loose popular force as a popular idea. But economic desperation lent new hope for some to propose it as a solution again. I know some old-guard socialists from the mid-twentieth century who are still alive. But what stood out for me among those socialists newly hawking their ideas on the streets is how young the adherents are.  Every single one of them was, without doubt, born after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. I sometimes wonder whether they even know what the Iron Curtain was. I find a lot of folks on both the left and the right of the political/economic spectrum more ignorant of history than they will admit.

I know one elderly gentleman who earlier in the twentieth century identified as a communist, but who now professes socialism (yeah, I guess, for this point, I have to allow the distinction). He was a proponent of the rise of the communist revolution in Russia. But then, in time, he saw the brutality and repression of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. That marked his self-professed conversion from communism to socialism. He strongly insists Marxism (the philosophical root of communism and socialism) has never really been tried; that what Russia did was something other than Marxism. Um, yes Marxism was, even if it did unfold differently from Karl Marx’s vision.

The first problem with how we approach Marxism as an economic model is that it isn’t just an economic model. It’s also a theoretical model of history with roots in the dialectic theory of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. While economists in the West ridiculed Marxist economic theory, it’s Marx’s theory of history they scared the common population with. It would be a bit much to try to lay out both the economics and the historical model of Marxism here. But I’ll suffice to say that Marxism envisioned both to be more than they are: forces independent from and superior to human agency that determine how humans interrelate with each other. And, as a dialectical theory of history, it assumes inevitable and innate conflict in human interrelations.

Karl Marx also turned Hegel’s theory on its head and assumed that he could know in advance, through “critical analysis,” the final outcome of an epochal conflict. Hegel’s dialectical theory of history involves three steps: a thesis (historical state as status quo), an antithesis (people feel burned out or oppressed by the status quo, so act to change the state of things), and a synthesis (the resulting state of things after the ‘thesis’ and the “antithesis” clash. Marx, through the arrogance of his “analysis” assumed that his “antithesis” was the “synthesis”; i.e. communism was the perfected state of a human economy. Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t. Or just maybe history is more fluid and less dialectical than Marx (or Hegel) thought it is. For the record, those who assume that capitalism is a perfected economic model are just as arrogant, historically speaking.

I say all this because the renewed ideological conflict unfolding between Marxism and capitalism detracts from the real moral problem we’re experiencing in our society. The editors of “First Things,” though shills to capitalist elites, hit the nail on the head when they assert that economics – whichever model you esp0use – is amoral. Their reasoning is that in order to be moral or immoral, you have to be an agent capable of acting morally or immorally.  On that point (and that point alone), I agree with them. However, economics is a framework through which agents (human and corporate persons) act. We’re seeing that now as those empowered to do so use the tools of the capitalist economic model to effectively steal national and global wealth.  We saw it in communism when, under the Soviet Union, people were oppressed and made to be mere instruments of the State, empowering elites in a unitary, all-powerful political Party. Either way, human beings are deprived of their own agency – and moral accountability – in servitude to overriding systems.

If it’s true that systemic frameworks, and not personal agents, are the cause of immoral economic activity, then there’s not reason to think that individuals need to be held personally accountable. Change the systemic framework and the problem goes away. I argue it won’t. The “problem” is not, at its root, a problem of economic models, it’s a problem of personal and social integrity. I don’t care which framework – capitalism, Marxism, or any other kind of -ism – is put in place to guide economic activity. Whenever any personal agent is inclined to self-empower at the expense of others, the personal agent will, regardless of the framework. That will has to be countered and put in check. And, socially, a generation needs to be trained to act morally.

 

 

Cliven Bundy: Role of Government and Access to Property

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People who are “friends” or “followers” of mine on Facebook may have noticed I’d become kind of obsessed with Cliven Bundy and his standoff with the Federal government over his proclaimed right to graze cattle for free on Federally-owned land. People who know me probably think that’s gratuitous on my part and, certainly, out of the ordinary. After all, the issues I really focus on revolve around economic justice, affordable housing and civil rights. What, then, do I care about what a nutcase, millionaire cattle rancher does on Federal land in Nevada?

I’m going to first be honest and get it out there. He’s fun! He’s a looney tunes character trying to make serious arguments around civil and property rights for his defense (not to disparage real Looney Tunes characters). There are a thousand-and-one comedy sketches that could be made about him. Why he doesn’t feel the least embarrassed, I don’t know. There’s also the matter of Tea Party members coming to back him up with armaments; like they would really win an armed standoff with government agents. This matter exemplifies their warped view of the world and of how our government is supposed to relate to the citizenry in terms of enforcing laws governing government property. They’re both really out there and I’m enjoying the comedic responses!

Added to that is what we’re learning about Cliven Bundy as the story unfolds; beyond the fact that he’s an opportunistic liar who wants to maximize his profit from production without paying the required production costs. We know, for example, he’s an unapologetic racist and a libertarian of the Southern “we should have won the war” stripe. And he doesn’t believe in personal accountability. Sort of sounds like talking points of the Tea Party. It’s no wonder their more committed members came to his armed defense. How Bill O’Reilly conflated that with Occupy Wall Street is another mystery in the messaging surrounding this story. At any rate, we see here that weird intersection between racism, self-interested maneuvering and economic bullying I referenced in my last blog post.

I’m following the unfolding of this story for more personal — maybe, more meaningful — reasons, though. The story raises questions in three significant areas: whether the government can assert (or, by extension, claim) ownership over property; under what conditions can an individual or corporate person assert their own needs (or perceived rights) over the government’s claim; and what is it the government is charged with protecting or promoting when it asserts ownership? I’m sure there are more questions that derive from this matter should folks step back and reflect on it, rather than simply soaking in ad hominem sound bites. But these are valid questions, I think. It appears Bundy has staked out his own position on them. I have my own, too.

That’s why I find this an intriguing story. I’m a long-time member and current board member of an organization, Picture the Homeless, that is addressing some of those same questions this story raises. Together with the Take Back the Land movement and the New York City Community Land Trust Initiative, we are looking at ways to redirect property and residential ownership and use of property to promote a human right to housing over merely viewing housing as a commodity that economically benefits a few who, want to maximize a return on investment without benefitting the communities in which they own private property. Obviously, we’re looking at a number of ways to achieve that; but we are not closed to the idea of leveraging eminent domain. When I mentioned that, not long ago, to a journalist, he acted surprised that you could use eminent domain to achieve that. I reminded him of the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case where the Court ruled the government can absolutely exercise eminent domain for the economic health of a community. The Court did so, in that case, for a community government that wanted to take private property from individuals and turn it over to private hotel developers. If the Court can determine the Constitution allows that for the economic benefit of the community, and the Court did, who’s to say the Court won’t affirm — or at least, should affirm —  that the State can do so when the economic benefit of the community means making safe, affordable housing available to people who are otherwise priced out of the housing market?

By raising these questions from the libertarian right, albeit unknowingly and for self-interested reasons, Cliven Bundy and his Tea Party allies are actually diffusing, in advance, charges of “communism” and “socialism” when we raise the same questions from the left. That makes the case of Cliven Budy and his assertion of free access to Federal land more than just fun or intriguing. It gives us something substantive to watch.

Dog Whistles

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The dog whistle. That term is used a lot these days in political punditry; sometimes, it’s way over-used. It usually references coded language “conservative” politicians use to denigrate minorities or the socially marginalized and rile up animosities among their typically white, conservative base. And while they’d loathe to admit it, white liberal politicians do it too. The dog whistle accusation is not always convincing, as was the case, this morning, in a Salon.com opinion piece responding to comments by Chuck Todd and David Brooks last Sunday on “Meet the Press.” They were questioning the perception of President Obama’s “manhood” in the Middle East. The columnist – Paul Rosenberg –  went to great lengths to discuss how that discussion responded to a perception of “black male aggression” and Obama’s political instinct to counter that perception. But, while the “Meet the Press” conversation was over-the-top, trying to read into the discussion anything about a perception of “black male aggression” is an incredible leap of the imagination. In the end, Rosenberg was blowing the liberal version of a political dog whistle himself to rile up the liberal base, but without adding anything of substance to the conversation.

It would be absurd, of course, to deny that politicians and political pundits don’t use coded language to cover stirring up racial animosity, just like it would be absurd to think that they don’t use coded language to diminish women or demonize socially marginal sexual orientations, or blame the poor for their own poverty to assuage economic fears among the middle class. These things happen. But calling those dogs whistles out doesn’t involve trying to find them where they’re not. Rather, they need to be called out for what they are when they are being used and the their source identified. That would make for a more substantive conversation.

I say all that because I’d been thinking about the use of those dog whistles for awhile. It’s easy to point out when a politician or pundit is using one.  You can even energize your base by pointing out when your opponent is dead wrong. But the unspoken truth – at least in popular discourse – is that politicians and pundits wouldn’t use dog whistles if they didn’t work. That the dog whistles do work points to a deeper discussion about what kind of society we are. I read an interesting report on a recent study awhile back about the differences in how the brains of conservatives and liberals process information. It’s an interesting read; maybe more so if you’re a neuropsychologist. The scientists who did the study readily admits the study doesn’t establish causality, only a correlations between conservative beliefs and how conservatives process things like “fear” and “disgust.” Whatever the case, conservatives are more prone to recoil at things they fear or don’t like. So much for being “manly.”

But I think that study, as interesting as it is, isn’t thinking deeply enough about the social dynamics that are impacting our politics. As I mentioned, before, conservatives aren’t the only ones who can be racist. White liberals might be less inclined to fear the “angry black man”; but can be equally apt to embrace preconceptions about why black people are marginalized, preconceptions divorced from causal experiences black people, themselves, would identify. Liberals might not recoil at having a conversation with a gay man, but are equally good at forming strange notions of how a gay man is supposed to act. Liberals usually won’t be outright cruel to a poor person, but are just as likely as their conservative counterparts to try to analyze what it is about the poor person that is causing their poverty. And former-President Bill Clinton is ample evidence that conservative men don’t have a monopoly on objectifying women.

I think Pope Francis hit the nail on the head when he said we’ve lost our ability to empathize; that ability to see another human being as a personal subject with their own needs, ideas and aspirations. To be honest, though, I’m not sure we ever really did have that as an American culture. From very early on in our history, we put great stock into the myth of the “rugged individual”; that a person makes it or fails on their own based solely on their personal strength and will to succeed. We early on elevated that myth to the point where we concealed how we succeed together by working together and contributing collectively for the common benefit. From the beginning we owned slaves and we dispossessed others from their land. Later, we allowed robber barons to take absolute control over the our economy and political machines and treat their workers like property (even arguing as much in Supreme Court cases). Even when workers began coming together and pushing back, it’s not at all clear that theirs was an authentic solidarity that recognized the subjective dignity of the human person, so much as it was a solidarity of power moved by individual self-interest actualized in a movement. Unions formed, but union members were very jealous about who could join.

All of those things and more underpinned the social consciousness of our Democratic experiment in America. There has been this constant tension between trying to stabilize our own individual places in society, while imagining progressive development. It seems some of those tensions are coming to a head, today, in a way they haven’t before. In the meanwhile, we have a minority of the population willing to leverage the chaos to steal our democracy – or, at least, our economy – out from under us. We have to respond to that minority. But we also have to confront our socio-historical demons honestly if we’re going to really resolve America’s social and economic crises today.