Why should I care? Apathy and exploitation – ending our civil religion, Part III

wealth-distribution-in-the-us-chart

A good friend called me out for assuming too much, and he was right.

One of my worst tendencies is to become passionate about an issue and begin discussing it with others without fully appreciating that they have not been inside my head to follow all the steps I’ve taken to get to where I am.

So, a brief recap of why we’ve been where we’ve been.

We started out the blog discussing perception and truth because my own foundational assumptions lead me to believe that our perceptions matter – it matters what we perceive reality to be because I think there is an actual reality to be understood.

I think God is real and that God created humanity. If that is true, then it follows that – if humanity was created for specific purposes – we are not maximizing our happiness, our utility, or the intention of our existence until and unless our perceptions have shifted to better account for reality.

My motivation is thus to suggest and demonstrate that the variety of perceptions that lead to this end are not only true but also offer the best kind of life. If I really believe these things like I say I do, it wouldn’t be very loving for me to remain silent.

Yet it likewise would not be loving for me to jam this down anyone’s throat – I could very well be wrong (so humility is called for), and even if I am not, repeating statements that people don’t want to hear (true or not) is both inconsiderate and counterproductive.

I have good friends of varying religious and philosophical beliefs who are in the same kind of situation, so I recognize how awkward explicitly mentioning these things can feel to those who are listening. It’s easy for me to come off as patronizing, and it’s easy for anyone who clearly thinks I’m wrong to view what I say condescendingly.

And that brings us to the “Issues” section of the blog that is now three posts long. The intention here is to attempt to explicitly call out several assumptions and beliefs most of us hold that have been implicit, and to explain or demonstrate alternatives that are frequently misunderstood.

The reason for calling out these specific implicit beliefs is: I think they are false and keep us from achieving our best possible lives, not only for ourselves, but also for those who are less materially fortunate than we are.

That has resulted in the last two posts, which have been attempted deconstructions of the civil religion that is prevalent in America and in most of the West. I don’t take glee in deconstructing these things because for most of my life they have been views that I have incorporated into my own perspective.

Thus we come to this post, where I suggest that our culture of consumerism (dating back to approximately the late 1940s, but focusing on the particular economic policy known as Neoliberalism which emerged in the 1970s) is exploitative in nature and encourages abuses of power, polarization of politics, and stronger segmentation of social classes.

But, if true, why should you care?

I’m typically not a fan of using single-line quotes to justify a position (they can easily be taken out of context), but I think there is one in this instance that suffices: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” (attributed to Edmund Burke).

There is also a temptation to adopt a kind of defeatist-like position that states: “I’m only one person; what possible difference do my opinion and actions make?” This is tempting because there is truth in that – I’m just one guy who doesn’t hold any political or cultural power, so my particular influence is very small.

But the Butterfly Effect is a real thing – the smallest actions in the most remote places can spread to have massively large impacts. I AM just one small person, but I influence in varying degrees everyone around me, which can in turn “catch on” and spread to others ad infinitum.

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For Christians, this is also analogous to our life as Christians: there is very little I can do as a solitary person that will massively shudder the kingdoms of this world or of God, but I am called to do what I can where I can and am told that this is massively important as far as God is concerned. I mean, shoot, our Savior was a nobody from nowhere – a common carpenter in a backwater town of a backwater province in the massive and mighty Roman Empire. Where would we be if He had decided, “I’m only one person; what possible difference do my opinion and actions make?”

So, to politics. Let me start out by stating I don’t like conspiracy theories. There are plenty on the political Left and Right. Generally, these theories assume that there are some group of people (“Them”) out there plotting to take over the world and crush us under their feet. Now, historically these people have definitely existed, and surely there are some out there at any given moment who do indeed have this goal in mind.

But it is the harshest and most cruel kind of judgment for us to level this accusation on those who have not explicitly made this sort of claim.

That doesn’t mean we need remain naive to our surroundings and sit on our hands while Rome burns around us, but it certainly means we should treat those we disagree with as fellow humans who are not Evil Incarnate. Generally, we are all people trying to do the best we can and make the world a little better; we just have quite a plethora of divergent ideas for how to get there.

That being said, a few words on American economic policy.

Part of the reason I attempted to skewer our popular conception of freedom in the last post was due to the fact that it is used to justify economic philosophies that on appearance seem to do much more harm than good.

A brief summary of economic philosophy followed by a history of recent economics (and, yes, it puts me to sleep, too, but it’s important):

The vast majority of national economies around the world are market economies, which loosely means that financial decisions such as production of goods and investments (and the prices that are set for goods) are determined by the demand consumers place on particular items and the amount of availability (supply) of said items.

Basically, if widgets become popular, businesses are inclined to create just enough to meet demand while keeping the price at the optimal rate to maximize profit – if a business creates too many, then the easy availability will decrease the price people are willing to pay; if a business creates too few, then the price will be high because they will be difficult to acquire (but if the price is too high, public interest and demand may decrease). Businesses are interested in finding a kind of “sweet spot” where the balance between supply and demand is just right: where prices are high (but not too high) and supply is enough to satisfy demand (leaving room for the demand to not quite be met nor exceeded) so that the most profit is generated.

There are two broad ways that governments interact with a market economy, with several possible variations: governments can choose to regulate the economy or leave it unregulated. To regulate means that a government attempts to control and direct the economy and to leave unregulated is to allow the economy to function as it will.

In reality, there is no such thing as a purely unregulated economy, as all governments attempt to influence economic activity to some degree. The political issue that arises concerns how much and what kinds of regulation the government should enact.

Within the last 70 years there have been two popular economic theories regarding government interaction: Keynesianism and Neoliberalism. Without going into detail, Keynesianism emphasizes more government regulation, while Neoliberalism advocates very little regulation.

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After the Great Depression and World War II, Keynesianism became the dominant economic philosophy in the West in response to the largely unregulated markets that contributed to the Depression.

Keynesianism fell out of favor in the 1970s. The healthy economic period that it had been a part of from the late 1940s till that time collapsed as economies around the world began to suffer stagflation – where simultaneously economic growth stagnates while prices begin to inflate.

I’m not qualified to provide an opinion on why this economic turn happened – many blamed it on Keynesianism, which is ultimately why it was abandoned in favor of Neoliberalism.

In the U.S., Neoliberal policies began to be implemented in 1979 by President Carter’s Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, he kept Volcker as Chairman and further encouraged his policies. Neoliberalism has been the dominant economic policy through all presidents, Democrat and Republican, up to the present day.

Philosophically, Neoliberalism talks a good game because it taps into our common love of the wrong kinds of freedom: doesn’t it make sense within the American paradigm that a market, just like people, ought to be free from as much regulation and oversight as it can be in order to realize its potential? If you regulate and restrict people, you limit them, right? So if you restrict an economy, it will likewise be limited.

That sounds logical in theory to almost all Americans. The trouble is not only with this misguided notion of freedom (see previous post), but also with the idea that markets are analagous to people. Without pointing fingers or calling anyone evil or bad, this is what has happened under neoliberal policies, followed by an explanation for why this is not a good thing:

When market regulation is lax enough, eventually a kind of economic Darwinism begins to take a hold – the strongest individuals and corporations begin to assimilate more of their competition and accumulate increasingly large portions of wealth.

Now, this wouldn’t be as much of a problem if there was unlimited wealth to be created. But that is not the case. A nation only has a finite amount of resources and a finite amount of currency.

Thus the distribution of a nation’s wealth amongst its society is a big deal because it represents who has enough wealth to survive (the classic standard is called the Poverty Line – the bare minimum income an individual or family needs in order to afford the basics for survival).

Another issue that arises when large percentages of wealth reside with a small number of people is, intentional or not, the creation of an oligarchy. An oligarchy is a kind of political structure in which power rests with a small number of people. This of course would be nearly the opposite of a constitutional republic (the definition of the U.S. government), yet it would appear that an oligarchy can form in its midst.

When money is the primary deciding factor in the outcome of political campaigns, he / she / it with the deepest pockets and most creative contributions to a candidate can in subtle ways “buy” the loyalty of the candidate by providing the funding needed to win an election. Likewise, the schmoozing of elected officials by lobbyists (who typically represent the vested interests of different wealthy / powerful people) further “influences” the way in which officials vote.

I don’t think it is an accident that the polarization and increased partisanship of American politics has directly coincided with the rise of Neoliberal policies. Republicans and Democrats never segmented in the kind of fashion they currently do until the parties themselves became strongly aligned to particular special interests.

I end with this link to a recent YouTube video that went viral regarding wealth distribution. Perhaps we need to hold each other accountable and really begin to rethink (as suggested in the previous post) what we mean by “freedom.” You tell me – does something need to change?

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