Saturday, February 4, 2012
The Gospel According to the Wall Street Journal
A term like capitalism is incredibly slippery, because there's such a range of different kinds of market economies. Essentially, what we've been debating over—-certainly since the Great Depression—-is what percentage of a society should be left in the hands of a deregulated market system. And absolutely there are people that are at the far other end of the spectrum that want to communalize all property and abolish private property, but in general the debate is not between capitalism and not capitalism, it's between what parts of the economy are not suitable to being decided by the profit motive.
And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
Martin Luther King
The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations.
The Wall Street Journal predictably published a piece by Rabbi Aryeh Spero this week proclaiming a biblical mandate for unfettered capitalism. These are usually the types of articles that I read (and comment on) so you don't have to. Put bluntly, Spero's "biblical" perspective is a theological atrocity. It is representative of a pure type of biblical conservativism, filled with false dualisms and unfair caricatures of "the religious left." Hopefully, you will be as shocked as I was. But we ought not be shocked. This kind of free-market spirituality is rampant in the United States and serves an economic agenda of the very wealthy and powerful. And that's why a robust, vigorous and unceasing alternative is desperately needed.
1. Spero calls Obama "a redistributionist." We should remember that every economic system (specific economic policies benefit specific groups) redistributes wealth. FDR's New Deal distributed towards poor and middle class households. Reagan's Morning in America has distrbuted towards the uber-wealthy.
2. Spero claims that the Judeo-Christian origins of the United States contain within it "a ringing endorsement of capitalism as a moral endeavor." He goes even further with his claim: "no theme is more salient in the Bible than the morality of personal responsibility," leading him to praise the spiritual rewards of work.
No theme more salient than the morality of personal responsibility? Not God's covenantal love (hesed) for the world that we are called to imitate? Not mercy or an unselfish commitment to the good of our neighbor? What about the more than one thousand passages that call God's People to care for the poor? And, by the way, there's nothing in Scripture that differentiates between the deserving and undeserving poor.
3. Spero dualistically contrasts capitalism with "socialism" or "the welfare/entitlement state" or just "statism," placing capitalism on a pedestal: "capitalism is dynamic and energetic. It cheerfully fosters and encourages creativity, unspoken possibilities, and dreams of the individual."
In the pure conservative biblical political worldview, nothing good ever happens when the government intervenes in the economy. If the government taxes, regulates or monitors anything besides the military, it stifles creativity and slows down economic growth.
We don't need to look to Western European countries to discount Spero's laissez-faire obsession. All we've got to do is consider 20th century American history. Show me a senior citizen today who will argue for a reduction of Medicare (1965--LBJ) and Social Security (1935--FDR) benefits (no doubt you can find them: they are the ones living in gated communities--the rare few who do not need government retirement or health insurance).
Consider the massive economic growth after World War II while the top marginal tax rate was 91%. Consider the drastic need for government intervention 100 years after the post-Civil War Amendments that were supposed to guarantee rights for people of color. People of biblical faith fought hard for all of these government interventions because they realized that the government is the only institution in our free society that has the moxie to protect poor and oppressed people from those buttressed by wealth and power. As Cornel West so aptly puts it:
In a time in which Communist regimes have been rightfully discredited and yet alternatives to neoliberal capitalist societies are unwisely dismissed, I defend the fundamental claim of Marxist theory: there must be countervailing forces that defend people's needs against the brutality of profit driven capitalism.
4. And then, Spero defends the need for massive force:
Furthermore, only a prosperous nation can protect itself from outside threats, for without prosperity the funds to support a robust military are unavailable. Having radically enlarged the welfare state and hoping to further expand it, President Obama is attempting to justify his cuts to our military by asserting that defense needs must give way to domestic programs.
When leaders (like Spero) of conservative faith communities argue for HUGE military budgets, we should remember what stake they have in that position. They desperately advocate for the status quo because things are working out quite well for them right now. A strong military and police force keeps their homes safe in gated communities and children advantaged in private schools and investments secure in bank vaults.
And who fights wars for the cause of the corporate powers? By and large, children from families with low incomes, who do not have the financial opportunities that others have. I see it more and more in the fearful, desperate eyes of the high school seniors I teach who do not know where they will earn enough to pay their college tuition and instead opt for 4 years in the military. Dad's gone or is out-of-work and mom's job barely pays the mortgage.
5. Spero, as I've heard over and over from conservative Christians, posits that the Bible is not interested in equality:
Many on the religious left criticize capitalism because all do not end up monetarily equal—-or, as Churchill quipped, "all equally miserable." But the Bible's prescription of equality means equality under the law...
Yet, when God demanded that the Israelites share manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16) and when Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes in the wilderness to feed thousands (John 6) and when the early church shared all their possessions with each other (Acts 2) the overwhelming focus was on the human responsibility to care for other people.
6. And, lastly, Spero offers a gruesome generality about those who oppose a thoroughly deregulated, laissez-faire capitalism.
The motive of capitalism's detractors is a quest for their own power and an envy of those who have more money. But envy is a cardinal sin and something that ought not to be.
God begins the Ten Commandments with "I am the Lord your God" and concludes with "Thou shalt not envy your neighbor, not for his wife, nor his house, nor for any of his holdings." Envy is corrosive to the individual and to those societies that embrace it. Nations that throw over capitalism for socialism have made an immoral choice.
Seriously? Was it envy that consumed Jesus' heart when he asked the rich young man to give away all his properties and come follow him? Isn't it at least quite plausible that those of us who advocate for a higher tax rate for wealthy households and corporations and a higher level of government regulation (just a little less of the economy "suitable to being decided by the profit motive" as Naomi Klein writes) are both earnestly seeking to give a realistic opportunity to succeed for those who lack it and have done our research on policies that actually provide that opportunity. Or maybe it's just envy and class warfare.
Trust me, Spero's article will be an ancient relic someday soon. Hope demands that. If truly there is in this universe "a creative force working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil," then pure biblical capitalists--more Ayn than Abraham, more Mitt than Moses, more Paul Ryan than the Apostle Paul--will be universally judged as being on the wrong side of history. It will be a clear consensus. Mark my words. The dualistic capitalists will lose, not because of the evil intentions of their opponents (envy or class warfare), but because we image-bearers of God (all humanity!) know through experience that there is a deep feeling of joy and fulfillment when we share our manna piles and seek to tangibly change economic structures so that those locked in the basement of poverty can truly help themselves and not just get a handout (from either government or charity).