In visiting one of my commenter’s recommended sites, The Prosperity Mandate (with a good model for incentivizing job creation, hop over and check it out), I ended up ranting in their blog’s comments section . I ranted about the challenge of changing the dominant (and inaccurate) Western mindset when it comes to economics, capitalism, socialism, distributism, and a government’s ability to act unilaterally for the “common good”.
So on the heels of Obama’s economic package press conference last night, I thought I’d weigh in here as well.
Basically, I just think we’re a sinful, ugly, wounded and confused race, we humans. It’s a main tenet of small “o” orthodox Christianity, actually, but one we prefer to deny. We’re horrible to each other, sick right down to the core, and needing God’s help to get better. Americans. Afghanis. Australians. Argentinians. The whole lot of us. We’re too often like little toddlers, playing dress up as adults: throwing tantrums, unwilling to share our toys and play nice, unable to stop hitting each other, even when we acknowledge it’s ineffective and wrong.
Of course, we humans are beautiful, too. We love to talk about that beautiful aspect of our lives: about our nobility, our potential, our accomplishments, our strengths. And we should talk about those, most certainly. We should never forget our worthiness, our call to unconditional love of each other, as children of a God who loves us all equally — flowing hair, warts, gorgeous voices, vices, brilliant thinking, ignorant tendencies, goofy little talents and all. We don’t need to be or do anything at all to earn God’s love. It’s a given.
But we’re also born broken and imperfect. And for each strength, we probably have a weakness in some other area, due to neglect if nothing else (but also due to brain-type, genetics, and other somewhat unchangeable factors). We mostly just do what we like to do, and learn to do it better, …which often means we leave our backsides exposed, by ignoring what is more difficult or less enjoyable.
Plus most of us don’t grow up perfectly straight and tall, clear-minded, unwounded, knowing always how best to love and work and pray and build each other up. We re-play our old mistakes in new situations. We fail miserably, somewhat consistently, and thus need to be consistently forgiven, and to forgive others.
Me, I fail daily. I’m failing right now, by writing instead of doing a few other things I promised myself and my wife and my boss that I would do. But it’s okay. I will get there. I will succeed by becoming gradually stronger and more disciplined, by listening to the Spirit, seeking my True Self, trusting God and listening to the Wisdom of the Ages.
So, given our sinful nature, this daily battle against chaos, there should be no shame in failure, whether it’s by an individual, a group, or an entire economy. Therefore, we also shouldn’t go on denying our tendency to fail — even our training to be self-involved, competitive and counter-productive, from the crib to the grave. Our faulty role models have unwittingly taught us to be selfish, careless, violent, insecure, undisciplined, narrow-minded or materialistic. “Everybody’s doing it,” we are told, “so it must be okay”.
But no. It’s not okay. It’s just what we do. Chaos and sin have their pull on our souls. We are tempted all the time. Ask any addict. It’s “stinkin’ thinkin’ “, and we all have our version of it, one that we refuse to let go of without a fight.
Therefore, I think there’s a place for a certain amount of government authority to motivate, to set boundaries and caps, and even occasionally to “force the issue”: to re-tool tax codes and regulate businesses, to enforce more community-minded thinking, action and spending priorities. Budgets are moral documents, as my friends over at Sojourners are fond of saying. It’s essential to spend money to create an atmosphere more conducive to re-thinking our priorities, one that encourages us to take our eyes off of ourselves in order to put them on a common vision, a common future.
Take the demonstrated success of Head Start as a classic example. Prepare the four-year-old better for school (even if it’s with public funds), and they’ll actually DO better the next twelve years as learners, and cost the state less in social service dollars, then finally they’ll EARN more once they’ve grown up. Just look at the stats. Numbers don’t lie (unless cooked up by a liar). Or look at the jillions of dollars we’ve spent in educating Iraqis about the benefits of democracy (not that I supported the war itself). We paid for it there? So why not fine-tune democracy, fairness, and opportunity in new and tangible ways here too? We need to invest in people, in our future. Not just in struggling, mismanaged industries, or by giving tax money back to those who have only been taught faulty spending patterns in the first place.
We pay for a police force to deal with lawbreakers, right? We pay for teachers (publicly-employed, in most cases) to help teach our children not just the three R’s, but also major cultural and communal values and systems (teamwork, advance-planning, accountability, character, persistence, …those kind of things). So why do we later think we’ve suddenly got all the answers, after reaching a certain age, income level, or sophistication? Why do we hold so tightly to this faulty notion that health, security and success should be measured only in dollars and cents, or in past experience, both for individuals and for nations. If past experience has not been learned from, or not well-integrated, then people are just as prone to make the same mistakes again.
But this notion of creating or growing government programs, to steer us as adults in the right direction, just doesn’t seem to fly, at least for Republicans. They want a lean spending attack, a targeted approach, one that quickly and efficiently bolsters existing structures instead of creating and then aiming at NEW targets. In principle, all agree that the goal should be a more broad-based growth and opportunity, to stimulate consumer spending, but with wiser or more responsible long-term planning and more jobs, for the largest number of citizens.
But the obstructionists with the most conservative constituencies don’t want to strain themselves by reforming, re-inventing, or regulating anything. It’s too hard a sell to their constituents: what’s so enjoyable about real change, about working for growth, about going without a few luxuries, about making and driving cars that can’t do 100mph, about humbling themselves enough to be better team players, about deferring gratification. Yet accepting these limitations and this hard work are exactly the same ways that any decent parent, coach, teacher, preacher or Buddhist monk would say are the ONLY path to true, permanent growth as a human being. So why did we let the bullies design the program to avoid work, or avoid their own discomfort whenever possible? And why can’t we remake it now? Not the same as FDR did, but as an entirely new set of priorities, for a more endangered and inter-dependent planet, as we redefine our new national role upon that planet.
Most Republicans would say this is an undemocratic notion, that it’s not government’s “job”, to set priorities or limits for individuals and families. The free market works, they say. They trot out that old boogieman communism again, just to shoot it down. They say they don’t need for government to be their mother, father, and Sugar Daddy all rolled into one, providing for their basic needs and maybe a “luxury” like a public library or daycare center now and then.
Well of course they don’t need that, because they’ve already GOT that. They’re already the favored sons and daughters, who don’t want part of their inheritance taken away in taxes to be given to under-valued sons number two through twelve. They don’t respond to the weak incentives already in place, that encourage more generosity and neighborly behavior, to include their poorer brothers and sisters. Nor do they want to be held accountable for the ways that the “trickle-down” economy never trickles. They’d rather keep the new “huddled masses” begging for their crumbs, rather than walking beside them, dealing with present realities, co-creating a more level playing field.
But the biblical story of Joseph (yeah, the Dreamcoat guy… go read about him in Genesis Chapters 37-50), who saved his eleven older brothers and the entire nations of Israel and Egypt, clearly shows that in crisis times (like their famine, or our economic meltdown), it’s essential to forgive, to move on, and to let good ideas come to the fore, no matter who proposes them. In fact God actually prefers getting everyone’s needs met by focusing on the outsider, the least, the youngest (as Joseph was), the most needy, the most wounded. God can then redeem everyone through some obvious act of divine power, not through the great contribution or skill the so-called leaders and their existing institutions are prone to be overly proud of.
Conscientious leadership is cooperative leadership. It let’s God in, and it sees God’s spirit in “the least of these”. It trusts people, and in faith it releases a need to control the minutia of the outcomes. It faces reality head-on, throwing aside ideologies that only worked under long-gone, past realities. It shares responsibility, authority, and opportunity as widely as possible (as represented not only by Joseph, but also by his boss, the king, who gave Joseph the governmental authority, and then generously made a place in Egypt for the starving Israelites).
But let’s get back to the here and now. Corporations and wealthy individuals– who perhaps have a lot to lose when their $9/hour retail worker, landscaper or cable-installer gets a better job, or wants to unionize– believe they will see no financial or social gain in empowering the disenfranchised with their own money (their taxes). But that’s a shortsighted way of thinking. They’re not seeing the new markets, the new, happier workers coming in to work early, driving on newly-built roads, to build new products that are meant to last. They’re not seeing the freedom offered by that Jubilee-style, once-in-a-lifetime, radical change that is now required.
Yet a vision is emerging, of a torn-down-and-rebuilt-better economy, a sustainable, disaster-resistant, moderately growing economy where opportunity and mutual benefit is the rule of thumb. Meanwhile, in a just economic system, immorally huge profits (and their accompanying exploitation, and ridiculously unnatural logic) would be rightly seen as against the law (both civil and moral). In fact, that whole “rich get richer” phenomenon is not democratic at all, nor is it biblical. It’s closer to the feudal, medieval model: with powerful lords, a few knights, a few craftsmen and clergy, and thousands upon thousands of peasants used as cannon fodder, or “tenants” of an area that doesn’t really belong to them.
So what’s so undemocratic about entitlement programs, or universal healthcare? If it’s our elected officials who are forcing us to do what’s good for us (those of us with the re-purposed assets, and those of us with newly-trained, capable hands to do the grunt work), then haven’t we already entered into a social contract with both government and our neighbors? Yes, we have free will. But can’t we choose to serve the greater good, and create political incentives and budget line items to do so?
Haven’t we asked our leaders to hold us to a higher standard, or to create a job prospect for our less fortunate neighbor? That way, our neighbor’s not sitting on the porch drinking, feeling hopeless about his ability to “make it”, blasting his Rage Against the Machine or Ludacris music throughout the neighborhood as some sort of outlet for all that pent-up shame, anger, and frustration? That way, also, there’s a whole lot less for anyone to complain about.
But we’ll still complain, won’t we? It’s just what we do. The chaos still creeps. We get attached to our “thing”, we blame, we get scared, we duck responsibility, we put off the expense till it’s too late –at which time Katrina blows in and brings our beautiful but vulnerable city crashing down. All these are our ways that we chafe against the limits of what is possible, in a fractured world which is nothing like the New Jerusalem we can see in our mind’s eye. The hard truth is that no, we cannot have it all. Having it all wouldn’t be good for us anyway. Comfortable for awhile, maybe. But not good for us.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t stop looking to build that city on a hill, with room for everyone who will fit. We’re closer now than ever before. That’s why it’s getting harder. Why can’t we see that?! We’re winning. We just don’t know it. We’ve forgotten that winning actually hurts most of the time — that it’s supposed to hurt. That it takes discipline and training and patience and teamwork. No pain, no gain… right? But do we really believe it?
So let’s not plot, like his brothers did, to throw our younger brother Joseph (or Jose) down the well. He’s actually the way we’re all going to be able to create a safer, brighter future. Because necessity really is the mother of invention. And neither flood nor drought nor war nor famine nor “risky financial instruments” can undo the march of history toward justice.