The Poet at Sunrise

The poet emerges at sunrise:
alone, as always, and without plan;
when else can he perceive the way
the lark’s sudden departure sends
a crown of halos rippling toward the bank?
His words cast common objects
in an unfamiliar light,
finding sacredness in the profane
and humor even in darkness.
“Yes,” we say,
“it is just like that, isn’t it?
We humans are a funny lot,
and much the same.”

Daylight belongs to the merchants,
the farmers, the tradesmen:
practical men with calloused hands,
theirs is not a life of glamour, but
they keep the world humming along
in good time and good taste
(that is, until the politicians –
who rush forward in late afternoon –
insist to show them all a better way);
busy, busy, is the day –
too busy for an unhurried thought
or unsuspected flash of genius,
too bright its rays.

The philosopher emerges at twilight
to remind the world what it has lost.
“Now we long for the return
of what we once despised…”
His warning is spoken too late, but
he writes the epitaph of the epoch,
understanding in hindsight
what was happening all along.
“We thought ourselves too clever,
building castles out of sand…
Ah! Alack! And what remains?”

The artist appears in the moonlight,
untroubled by the fall of empires;
somehow he knows humanity will survive
this latest apocalypse.
The passing era has left at his disposal
more than enough fragments:
shards of marble and of clay
to be sifted through and studied
till he can fashion a new way:
“Bold! Revolutionary! Daring!” they exclaim,
as skepticism fades to praise.

The poet emerges at sunrise…

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The Case against Capitalism (and Socialism)

When teaching my tenth-grade world history students about capitalism, socialism, and communism, I start by giving them a ten-question survey of their views. This includes questions like:

  1. Free trade between countries is: a. Good, because it leads to lower prices for consumers, b. Bad, because it leads to lower wages/ less jobs for workers in your country, or c. Bad, because it leads to the exploitation of the working class around the world
  2. To address economic inequality, we should: a. Give everyone the chance to rise into the middle class through education and hard work, b. Tax the rich to fund programs for the poor, or c. Redistribute land and property from the rich to the poor
  3. Which is the greatest danger to the people? a. Government tyranny infringing upon individual liberty, b. Wealthy elites exercising too much power over the government, or c. Systemic exploitation of the working class by the middle class

Almost no one ever chooses all A’s, B’s, or C’s. Even conservative students will occasionally select the socialist answer, and even liberal students will select the capitalist answer at times.

From there, I try to make the strongest case for each system using the words of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Then, as a class we pick these arguments apart, identifying their strengths and weaknesses.

For example, Smith and other capitalists claim that allowing individuals to pursue their self-interest in a free market most often benefits society as a whole. This argument works in many cases. Smith is correct in his insistence that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” One can imagine a range of economic transactions where individuals freely pursuing their self-interest in a competitive market results in win-win scenarios.

However, there can be numerous “market failures,” cases in which businesses acting out of self-interest can harm society as a whole. The easiest example to illustrate this concept is pollution. A company might save money by dumping waste into a river rather than disposing of it more carefully. This is good for the company in the short-term, as it increases profits, but terrible for society in general and even the company in the long-run.

So what do we do? We make rules. We pass laws demanding that industrial waste be disposed of safely. Even the most libertarian of economists will not deny the need for such regulations. In fact, they are necessary for capitalism to function. Capitalism is not so much the natural state of human affairs, but rather owes its existence to the establishment of certain laws, going all the way back to the eighteenth century. Conservative thinkers often (rightly) decry government intervention in the economy, but capitalism cannot exist without a government capable of establishing and enforcing “the rules.” In order to have a basketball or football game, all participants must know the rules, and neutral referees (the government) must enforce them. The teams and individual players cannot be expected to police themselves.

Okay, so the pollution example is handled easily enough. But are there inherent contradictions built into the capitalist system, as Marx claims? Consider big corporations. Their obligation is to maximize profits for shareholders. They can do this in two main ways: either reducing production costs and/or increasing demand. But both strategies can have negative repercussions for society, even endangering the capitalism system itself. If businesses cut production costs too much (for example: automating production, hiring fewer workers, or shipping jobs overseas) then either unemployment increases or wages decrease. Either way, there is not enough demand left to maintain current production levels.

Businesses must therefore innovate or die. But each innovation creates a new problem, essentially kicking the can down the road. For example, you can pass laws encouraging consumers to take on debt (for example, the mortgage interest deduction). This allows them to consume more goods. But what happens when the credit bubble bursts? Answer: another crisis (2008), another short-term solution (bailouts, stimulus).

Efforts to drive up demand are similarly problematic, especially for companies that sell products detrimental to the public good. Big Pharma, Big Tobacco, and Big Fast Food companies can only increase demand by getting the public to consume more drugs, cigarettes, and burgers. Each of these outcomes is demonstrably harmful to society as a whole and the individuals who find themselves addicted to these “products.”

Now, a capitalist might say that consumers are free to choose broccoli over Big Macs, gym memberships over cigarettes, holistic treatments over opioids. But when we look around, we see that the allure of cheaper, more convenient alternatives is too tempting for most people to resist. Even conscientious moms balk at spending twice the amount on grass-fed beef or organic produce. In the case of cigarettes and opioids, addiction negates any claim of consumer choice.

America’s current opioid epidemic is the most insidious example of capitalism run amok. It started back in 1996, when Purdue Pharma began aggressively marketing a new opioid painkiller, OxyContin. This included a bonus system for pharmaceutical reps to increase sales. According to one article,

These efforts succeeded spectacularly… OxyContin prescriptions for non-cancer-related pain went from about 670,000 in 1997 to about 6.2 million by 2002… A small group of physicians, some receiving funding from drug firms… lobbied to have pain recognized as the ‘fifth vital sign’… In 2001, Purdue spent $200 million marketing Oxycontin… by 2002, sales topped the $1.5 billion mark. Between 1991 and 2013, the number of annual opioid prescriptions in the U.S. increased from 76 million to 207 million, with corresponding increases in the number of cases of addiction, overdose, and death… the Department of Justice took notice, and charged Purdue with misbranding the drug’s abuse potential. In 2007, Purdue pled guilty and paid over $600 million in fines.

From a purely economic perspective, Purdue did what they were tasked to do: they made profits for their owners and shareholders. It’s hard to imagine any fines outweighing the billions they have made as America’s largest legal drug dealer. Perhaps they told themselves they were doing good – just helping to ease the pain of those who were suffering. Perhaps the enormous sums of money streaming in helped them sleep at night.

In the last sixteen years, overdose deaths from opioids have risen fivefold. From 2000 to 2016, 600,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses. Today, an average of 115 Americans die each day from overdosing on heroin or prescription opioids. At just 5% of the world’s population, we consume 80% of its opioids.

Addressing Big Pharma’s role in the opioid crisis does not require dismantling the entire capitalist system. But we have to be willing to change the rules to avoid undesirable outcomes. Interestingly, The U.S. and New Zealand are the only countries that allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise drug claims directly to consumers. Banning DTC marketing would not be enough to solve the problem, but it would be one step in the right direction.

If you change the rules of the game, you change how the game is played. Think of how much the addition of the 3-point line has changed basketball; outside shooting is now essential to win games. Within a few years, shooters got so good that the line had to be moved back. Think how much differently soccer would be played if there was no off-sides call. What if baseball went to a five-strikes-and-you’re-out rule, or dropped it to two? Either way, players and teams would respond to the new rules to maximize their chances of success.

To recap: every modern economic system, including capitalism, needs a clear set of rules and a government capable of enforcing them. Altering the rules alters how the game is played. When coming up with the rules, we must put the good of human beings first and foremost in our minds, not abstract concepts – whether they come from the left or the right. Increased government regulation is not a magic wand we can wave over any problem to improve it, and neither is deregulation.

G.K. Chesterton describes the confusion over the “capitalist” and “socialist” labels. Though most would consider him a conservative, Chesterton refused to defend capitalism, which he defined as:

That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage. If capitalism means private property, I am capitalist. If capitalism means capital, everybody is capitalist. But if capitalism means this particular condition of capital, only paid out to the mass in the form of wages, then it does mean something, even if it ought to mean something else.

G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc proposed a third option, which they called “distributism.” This system, based largely on Catholic social teaching, seeks to distribute property more evenly than “pure” capitalism (which doesn’t really exist), but without relying on government ownership of the means of production; thus, it is not socialism either. Distributism is based on the Catholic concept of subsidiarity – the idea that a community of a higher order should not interfere in the workings of a community of a lower order. The nation should not try to do what the states can do; the states should not try to do what the localities can do; localities should not try to do what families can do.

Simply put, scale matters. Almost everyone prefers the idea of small businesses to big corporations. Why not restructure our laws to favor the former and impede the latter.

Take this famous exchange from the classic film It’s A Wonderful Life:

George Bailey: Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You’re right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was… why, in the 25 years since he and his brother, Uncle Billy, started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn’t that right, Uncle Billy? He didn’t save enough money to send Harry away to college, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what’s wrong with that? …is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!

If we are to be “capitalists,” then let us be capitalists like George Bailey and not Mr. Potter.

How do we encourage the George Bailey’s of the world and keep the Mr. Potter’s at bay? Most of us would rather live in Bedford Falls than Pottersville. So why do we give our money to Mr. Potter? It will be hard to change the rules of the game to favor small businesses, as they cannot afford corporate lobbyists. In the meantime, we can consider the social effects of our daily economic decisions, choosing to spend our dollars supporting small businesses whose goals and business practices align with our values, even if it means spending a few extra dollars for daily items.

Joseph Peace summarizes disributism thus:

In practical terms, the following would all be distributist solutions to current problems: policies that establish a favourable climate for the establishment and subsequent thriving of small businesses; policies that discourage mergers, takeovers and monopolies; policies that allow for the break-up of monopolies or larger companies into smaller businesses; policies that encourage producers’ cooperatives; policies that privatize nationalized industries; policies that bring real political power closer to the family by decentralizing power from central government to local government, from big government to small government. All these are practical examples of applied distributism.

In my son’s 10-year-old boys’ basketball league, the rules are designed to give all players the chance to play and grow. For example, each player must play at least two full periods. If one team is up more than 10 points, they can no longer apply full-court pressure. Now, is this the equivalent of “socialist” basketball? Certainly not. The system still runs on competition. Coaches and players still have the freedom to decide what type of sets to run and shots to take.

It seems like the rules of the game are rigged to disproportionately benefit those who are already wealthy. This is not just a Bernie Sanders talking point. In fact, both Sanders and Trump – the two most popular candidates in the last election cycle – ran against capitalism (recall Trump’s attacks on free trade). The fact that the eight wealthiest people in the world have more money than the bottom half – that’s 3.5 billion men, women, and children – should give us all pause. Most voters – Sanders and Trump supporters alike – want to see the rules changed to create a more fair game. If a rec sports league can do it, why can’t we?

Instead of focusing on labels and ideologies, which often mean different things to different people, we should be focused on real-world solutions that put people – not profits, and not government – back at the center of economic life.

What Our Objections to God Say about Us

Most objections to Christianity, or to religion more broadly, are hardly unique. So, encountering this fairly typical description of six “paths to atheism” seems as good an opportunity as any to address them.

I’ve come to realize that our objections to God’s existence tell us more about ourselves than about Him. Most can be boiled down to three basic realities of our psychology and the human condition:

1. The limits of the human brain to fully comprehend the world,

2. The human inclination to doubt, and

3. The human inclination to sin.

First, the limits of the human brain. The author of this post, blogger Chad Becker, begins with the question of God’s infiniteness. He simply cannot wrap his mind around the idea that God has existed for all of time. It is so obvious as to be cliche. Thus, this is his first path to atheism.

But is it really easier for us to fathom a point in time at which there was no universe and no God? Either way, we cannot comprehend God’s nature in the same sense that we can comprehend the nature of an orange. The part can never grasp the whole, and we are most certainly but a part of the universe we inhabit. Even if my thumbnail possessed consciousness, along with a vague awareness that it was part of something bigger than itself, could my thumbnail ever fully comprehend the human body in all its intricate complexity? Certainly not. But it would make even less sense for my thumbnail to cling to the belief that it was all there was, denying the existence of the greater body.

Becker also admits to being unable to fathom heaven (point six). To which I would respond that neither can anyone else. But saying “I’ve never been to the center of the earth; I just can’t imagine what it would be like there,” is not to admit that the center of the earth does not exist.

Religion is not the only field to offer seemingly incomprehensible conclusions; just look at science. People struggled to accommodate themselves to Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, Newton’s physics, and Einstein’s theory of relativity. When we study the world from a scientific perspective, as from a religious perspective, there exists the same condition of knowing something without fully comprehending it. I know that time and space are relative, but my brain still struggles with what that means. I know that God is infinite, but I am likewise at a loss to articulate all the implications of this concept. Don’t even ask for a precise explanation of the trinity. Likewise, even the best, most brilliant scientists struggle to explain the origins of human life or the exact nature of matter. We are time and again forced to admit that there is much we do not know. Thus, Christianity has always acknowledged the existence of mystery. The fact that we cannot comprehend something does not make it untrue.

Secondly, doubt. It is in many ways a mark of intelligence and maturity to be willing to doubt what one has been taught, especially when one encounters different teachings. The alternative would be to refuse to consider opposing views, insisting that one already possesses all the answers and therefore everyone else must be wrong.

So what are we to make of all the religious diversity we encounter? Becker admits this to be the true source of his doubt (point two). He realizes that if he were born into a Mormon family, he would likely be a Mormon. If he had been born in India, he would likely be a Hindu. Religion, then, is just each unique culture claiming an unfounded monopoly on truth. So what if Christians have a book they use to justify their claims? Islam has a book. Mormonism has a book. In Becker’s words, “Nothing distinguishes one religion’s claims as more valid on an evidence based level.”

While this is certainly a common objection in the modern, globalized age, it is not too difficult to dispense with. One can start by pointing to all the similarities between the world’s great religions. Doesn’t the fact that certain teachings crop up in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Taoism support their validity? Take, for instance, the obligation to care for the weak and needy, the understanding of man as a basically flawed being, the need to cultivate virtue, and the possibility of life after death.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis observes:

If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own… Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of doublecrossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two make five.”

The commonality of many belief systems from around the world supports natural law theory — the idea that we can use reason, common sense, and experience to arrive at a set of universal moral norms. Any child who has every screamed “That’s not fair!” has appealed to the idea of a universal code of human behavior that all should be able to recognize (though all don’t always follow). It is as if a moral code had been inscribed upon our hearts, a “conscience” if you will. If there is a universal, natural law (beyond mere human laws, which will vary), then there must be a universal law-giver, and this we know as God.

And yet while the world’s diverse cultures have long subscribed to a set of strikingly similar norms of behavior, they are not all the same, and they are not equal. In Hinduism, widows were once burned to death. Various cultures have practiced some form of human sacrifice. Around the world today, there are certain cultures that continue to victimize women and children. The Gospel of Matthew instructs “by their fruits you shall know them.” It is no coincidence that the very idea of human rights and women’s rights first emerged in a Christian context. Christians were the first to oppose infanticide, establishing the first orphanages to care for unwanted children. While some have perverted scripture to attempt to justify slavery, as Becker notes, Christians were also the first to abolish slavery entirely on the grounds that it was in fact anti-Christian.

While similar to other religions in its basis in natural law, Christianity is also unique. It is the only religion to claim to have been founded by God Himself. Muhammad is to Muslim’s but a prophet; Buddha and Confucius were to their followers but wise teachers. Yet Christians believe that Jesus was and is God, the Word made Flesh. No other religion has anything like the Incarnation or the Resurrection. No other religion can provide as firm a foundation for human rights. By becoming human Himself, God endowed humanity with a unique dignity and worth. This fact should be enough to make us pause and consider Christianity as more than just one of many moral systems from which to choose.

People often criticize Christians for trying to convert people of other faiths, as if such an action was based in a negative judgment of their existing faith. But imagine we are all in a river (life), headed for a great waterfall (death). The end seems inevitable, except there is a narrow stream – partially obscured by branches – leading off to the safety of land. Would we criticize someone for venturing out into the raging waters to help others reach the stream of salvation? Or would we more criticize the one who contents himself with his own salvation, letting others choose their own way though knowing it leads to ruin? The latter course is “tolerant,” the former loving.

Becker’s fourth and fifth paths to atheism stem from a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the Bible, which is not one book but a library of seventy-two books, varying greatly in their authors, contexts, and purposes, collected and compiled over the centuries. A mass of writing such as this cannot be expected to be fully understood without a great deal of careful study. If one is intent to cherry-pick verses, it can be easily misread and misunderstood. (This is why the Catholic Church has always pointed to the need for authority in interpreting scripture, and why Luther’s Reformation wrought so many conflicting interpretations.)

However, it is impossible to consider the Bible as a whole and miss the essential message of God’s love for humanity and the importance of compassion and repentance. In his effort to instruct humanity, God did not begin by unloading the entire truth in one sitting, just as we would not begin instructing a child in Shakespeare and Einstein. We would first prepare a foundation, instilling basic concepts of reading, writing, and arithmetic. A child passes through many teachers in his life to prepare him to for his ultimate career, just as God sent many prophets to prepare the way for His Son. In the Gospel, Jesus clearly states that he is establishing a new covenant, not to replace God’s covenant with Abraham, but to complete and perfect it.

The third human obstacle to understanding God is a big one – sin. Beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden, the very first sin sprang from doubts about God’s ultimate goodness (the idea that He might be selfishly hoarding wisdom) and the desire to be like Him: to possess knowledge of good and evil. At the root of all sin is rebellion against God; specifically the desire to replace His judgment with our own. Returning to natural law, C.S. Lewis states:

These, then, are the two points I want to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious desire that they should behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.

A consequence of human sinfulness is that we live in a pretty messed-up world, a world where even professing Christians do terrible things – not because they are Christian, but because they are human beings, and therefore fallen. The schoolyard bully knows full-well that it is wrong to pick on the weaker kids. He does so anyway. But we humans are also masters of self-delusion. Often at the earliest sensation that what we want to do is wrong, we come up with elaborate justifications, even telling ourselves that it is all for the best.

In Becker’s third point, he criticizes Christians as narcissistic for attributing all the good in their lives to God, as if God cared more about them scoring an “A” on that test or landing a new promotion than the welfare of the millions of people in the world left to suffer. Certainly Christians are not immune from the very human vices of narcissism and vanity. All that is good in our lives does ultimately trace back to God, but what the world calls good is not what God calls good. For example, most people long for riches and would thus celebrate an increase in their personal fortunes. But from the perspective of one’s soul, riches may impede the path to heaven and eternal life; thus they can be bad. As Christians, we should perhaps begin to thank God more for the challenges and obstacles in our lives, especially those that provide opportunities for spiritual growth, and get rid of this notion that God just wants us to be happy and comfortable.

All this talk of sin makes atheists like Becker especially uncomfortable, as it leads to the most abhorrent of states – guilt. This is no surprise, as the creed of postmodernism may as well be “always feel good about yourself, no matter what!” How terrible to sense that one may not be as good as one would like to believe! How awful to imagine that one’s sexual desires should sometimes (as in the case of homosexuality and adultery) be suppressed and not indulged! How can man ever be truly happy if he is always obsessed with following rules?!

To Becker, there should really only be one rule – “just be a nice person.” In this very popular line of thinking, we should stop preaching our “thou shalt not’s” and just leave people alone for goodness’-sake. Remove the warning lights and the guardrails. Because the last thing we would ever want is to make someone feel like they are not “just fine the way they are,” like they have the potential to be so much more, like this life is not the end. Becker finds the very concept “gross,” and he is glad to be free of it. But returning to the analogy of the waterfall, is it “nice” to watch as people float by towards the waterfall, oblivious to the impending disaster? Or is it at best moral laziness and cowardice? The path of repentance is uncomfortable to be sure, but the path of sin does not lead to happiness, in this life or the next.

Clocks

As morning light declares the sun’s slow climb —
how now, my dear, will we mark the time?
An hour in your arms alone can be
an eternity that passes, too quickly…

No watch, however cleverly composed, can show
the weight I feel as I watch you go;
nor hourglass, with sinking sands insist
that I depart, or you resist…

Don’t circle me with clocks! their lulling lies —
and I will read my future in your eyes;
don’t speak of evening, or of afternoon;
these pained promises never come too soon…

Just stay with me, and claim our meeting’s powers
to overthrow the tyranny of hours.