Friday, February 24, 2012

Bridging the Gap

I was heartened to see this little piece by Cal Thomas in my local paper. Both sides of the political and social agenda spectrum can tend to scream so loudly at each other that eventually a wall of animosity builds up like plaque between them. It was good to see a truly charitable moment between Ms. Maddow and Mr. Thomas. People need not be enemies over everything.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Catch Me Net

Apple, Inc. has been getting more than its fair share of attention lately, possibly due to the fact that they may not (quite) have told the truth when they were supposed to. They boasted on their web site of rigorous standards that all of their suppliers were required to meet in order to work with the famed creators of the iPhone and iPad. Alas, either Apple, Inc. knew and lied to the public about the records of its suppliers, or else they were simply unaware of the horrid conditions that some of these suppliers work under. American journalism did its job right in uncovering the story, finding evidence suggesting that Apple did in fact know about the abuses for a long time and chose not to do anything about them.

In one case, which borders on the absurd and tragically comic, a Foxconn employee ended up on the roof of the facility, threatening to commit suicide by jumping because he had been treated so badly. Management was finally able to get the man down and they took steps to ensure that the suicide rate by jumping decreased. What steps, you ask? Not by improving work conditions. No, their solution was to install nets on the outside of the building in order to catch suicide jumpers.

It sounds (and is) ridiculous. But it is true. The catch-me net is their solution. Because apparently that was the only problem they were actually trying to solve, that people trying to kill themselves by jumping tended to hit the ground violently and die from blunt force trauma. If the blunt force trauma could be averted, everything would be all right. Right?

The Foxconn case is not much different than so many other cases of Chinese companies manufacturing goods for American consumers. The theme is the same: exploitation. Low pay, very very long hours, long weeks, no rest, lousy living conditions, promises of benefits that never materialize. There is no dignity in this work.

Where am I going with this? I am driving towards defining a word, and defining it correctly so that all the world knows exactly what I mean when I say it and that there is no misunderstanding. The word is capitalism. In defining the word, I shall follow the same path as author Thomas Storck does when he quotes Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno: "[T]hat economic system, wherein, generally, some provide capital while others provide labor for a joint economic activity." So one party provides the financing, the other party does the gruntwork for a wage.

What is so wrong with this arrangement? It seems normal enough on the surface. But there is hidden problem here: to paraphrase Mr. Storck, the problem here is precisely the separation of work and property (or capital.) As he says so eloquently, "the separation between work and the ownership of productive property ... tends to liberate the appetite for amassing wealth from the natural limits attached to it when that wealth is acquired by an individual with his own labor applied to his own productive property."* It is a situation ripe for the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy. The minority party, the rich, can enjoy the almost limitless increase to their stockpile of wealth (which can never be properly utilized by so few people), whilst the majority party, the labor providers, only gain a tiny share in the wealth they help to create.

Radio talk show personality Neal Boortz likes to describe the poor in this country as basically the ones who will not work hard enough to make a good living; the lazy, lousy, stupid, uneducated poor. He claims it is mostly a mindset of entitlement that keeps the poor in their poverty. Former governor Mitt Romney speaks as if he agreed with those sentiments. Both men suggest that we don't need to cut the economic pie into smaller pieces to go farther, rather, we need a larger pie for everyone to have a bigger piece. In other words, we need more people to become wealthy so that they may spread their own wealth around. I think the two of them have missed the point, though, kind of like Foxconn and its catch-me nets.

They in effect suggest that we just need more capital providers in this country, more rich people to finance the projects. Except that this seems to be precisely the problem. As people become more financially wealthy, they are generally less inclined to do their own manual labor, or simply do not have the time to do it anymore. Therefore, they hire out the work since they have the money. But what they are paying for is labor, something which in effect Boortz and Romney are both saying that we should work our way away from towards greater ownership of wealth.

Boortz and Romney (and many a capitalist) would essentially have us devalue the proper place of labor and concentrate instead on acquiring capital. This concentration leads us, I imagine, to despise labor.

If there is uncertainty about the conclusions I have drawn here, I submit for your consideration the very Foxconn of which I spoke earlier. It is a monstrously huge company that provides dirt cheap labor to build Apple's iPhone. Apple makes most of the profit from the sale of said phone, the Apple company gets rich, American consumers (in a way the capital providers) get their iPhone cheap and everyone is happy except for the Foxconn employees who make next to nothing for their labor.

Unions in the United States and elsewhere have attempted to correct this monumental injustice by demanding higher pay for their members' work. But again, capitalism rears its ugly head by continuing to separate labor and capital. Take the United Auto Workers as an example. They demand unreasonably high pensions and benefits and pay because they need not worry about troublesome things like cash flow and profits. They just build the cars, not balance the company books. They work, they do not own. So the union and the auto manufacturer end up at odds because neither is in a position to really care enough about the others' true needs.

We as Americans either disdain labor, value it by its monetary value too highly, or subconsciously realize that our work is still valuable but that our capitalist system disallows it to have value. Thus much of our work becomes outsourced to those people who will actually still do the work. That is the reason we see Made in China printed on everything, and also the reason there are so many Mexicans doing the menial labor as janitors, dishwashers, lawn care specialists, etc. Capitalism gravitates towards the cheapest labor in order to produce the greatest profit, regardless of the conditions necessary to make the labor cheap in the first place.

This is a systemic problem, and will only become worse the greater the separation between capital and the labor which creates it becomes. More capitalism (or more capitalists) is not the answer. Reintegrating man's labor and productive property is the answer. There is more pride, accomplishment, and justice in being rewarded for the work you truly own than for making a profit off another person's labor.

This is the essence of Distributism.

*Thomas Storck, Capitalism and Distributism: Two Systems at War

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Saint Valentine's Day!

To all of my readers, a happy feast of the good Saint Valentine to you! He is not the patron saint of glittery greeting card hearts (that was for you, Hallmark) but the patron of love and happy marriages. Emphasis on the marriage part, because in Saint Valentine's mind if you were in love you would most certainly get married to show it.

Just as an interesting side note, the name Valentine comes from the Latin word valens, meaning "strong" or "healthy."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Tax Time and Religious Freedom

I apologize for the lapse in posting recently, I have been Doing My Taxes.

Drumroll, please... And I have finally finished them and all paperwork is out the door and to the IRS. Yay!

With that out of the way, I may actually be able to get something meaningful written and posted here in a day or two, especially continuing on the topic of distributism. Sorry to leave all of you hanging. But for the moment, I feel the need to report something about this news story circulating recently, about the new Health and Human Services mandate to Catholic institutions that they provide abortion and contraceptive services as part of their health care plans. It is important to understand that, whether you agree with the Church's position on reproductive matters or not, this decision is an opening for the administration to meddle with whatever religion and matter of conscience they choose. Even if you're not Catholic, you could still be next.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Meandering Introduction to Distributism

Good literature is many times discovered in the oddest places and at the oddest times. What I mean by “good” literature is the stuff that sticks with you long after you've read it, the kind of writing that you can recall passages of from memory because it jarred you out of your mental lethargy and into the bright light of self-reflection. Whether that jarring was humor, or pathos, or drama, it woke you up. I was exposed to such a book about thirteen years ago, when I was still in grade school, when my mother was trying to find a good book for me and my brother to read for class. I had never heard of the book she picked. It was titled The Phantom Tollbooth.

It wound up being one of the most fantastic reads of my life, and continues to give me pleasure even now that I am grown and married. It is the story of a young boy who is suddenly removed from a mundane life in our world and thrust into a world that literally embodies figures of speech and mathematical abstracts. This other world is made up of two kingdoms, the kingdom of letters and the kingdom of numbers, which are at odds with each other because each kingdom insists that they encapsulate the whole of truth and need no one else. These two kingdoms had been simpatico at one point, before the twin princesses of Rhyme and Reason were whisked away and all hell broke loose. Now everyone's only hope is to rescue the two princesses or the world will remain divided forever.

Now, I am aware that readers, book reviewers, critics, fans and the like are fond of putting intent into the work they are presented with. It is easy for some to call Tolkien's Lord of the Rings a simple analogy for the spiritual life, easier still to claim that Hamlet can be handily dissected using the methodology of one Sigmund Freud. I am not attempting here to tack any of my own meaning onto a beloved work, only to show a very strong parallel between the book and an overarching issue of our times that remains oddly absent from the national spotlight.

How could a children's book about a little boy and two kingdoms at odds possibly reflect the state of our nation? Well, we'll start with the two kingdoms part.

The term “partisan” has dominated the news recently, with headlines such as “partisan bickering” and “hyper-partisan atmosphere” rising to the top of the stack. All that those terms really mean is that there is a massive ideological fault-line between two very well staked-out camps. The simple divisions arrange themselves across this fault-line in roughly this fashion: liberal vs. conservative, left vs. right, Democrat vs. Republican, socialist vs. capitalist. One side believes in the unfailing right of the people to demand the wealth and happiness they want from the government and, by extension, from their fellow men. The other side believes in the unfailing right of the people to duke it out in order to reach the top of an exclusive pile of wealth and happiness, sometimes at the expense of their fellow men.

Both of these “sides” will not only defend their respective lines in the sand with great vigor, but they will also demand that all who wish to be good, engaged citizens of this nation pick a side. They frame the argument as a simple 'one or the other' choice. It is either light or darkness. You must choose. And when you choose, you will be welcomed heartily by one side and energetically damned by the other. The Phantom Tollbooth does a wonderful job of capturing this same divide, as the kings of both sides try desperately to convince the little boy that their position is the best. Each king casts the other as some sort of radical: believing only in words is ludicrous for the king of numbers, and putting one's faith solely in numbers is preposterous for the king of letters.

And the funny thing is, both kings are right. And both are wrong at the same time. Each casts the other as a radical because each realizes the other clings to only a portion of the truth and has run with it. The thing they each fail to realize, however, is that they themselves also cling to only a portion of the truth and have run with that portion to the detriment of the rest. The same is true with our nation. For example, conservatives see the hypocrisy of jet-set liberals who claim they are champions of the poor, and liberals recognize the injustice of their opponents' support of huge, faceless corporations who hire and fire people without a thought in the world to the actual welfare of those same people. Each sees in the other the darkest example of all that is evil, and yet will never step back long enough to examine themselves for any wrongdoing. One side deifies power, the other side deifies the hard-working self.

It would seem not many people believe there is a third option, but there must be. Political power dies with either the person holding said power or the system that created that power. A very finite god indeed. The honest, hard-working self also dies when either a man loses all willingness or ability to work, or loses his actual physical life. Also a very finite god. We are a species that knows instinctively that there are some things which last, even if we do not know what they are. So there must be a third way.

The third option is paralleled wonderfully in The Phantom Tollbooth when the little boy finally rescues the princesses Rhyme and Reason. First he shows the two kings how they actually are one and the same because they have both agreed to disagree and therefore are in agreement. But his reconciling of the two kings is not enough to save the two kingdoms. There remains the necessary outside impetus of the twin princesses to restore actual order and peace. It is only through their reintroduction to the world that sanity returns and all is made right.

The same is true in real life. Not only must both sides find how their two extremes can be melded into a coherent middle ground, but life in general and the political dialogue in particular must be reintroduced to their respective purposes. Politics has become an end in itself, a game played for the amusement of a few and the horror of many others. Life has done the same, transforming into a festival of pleasure knowing no healthy bounds and destroying the weakest among us in its headlong pursuits. The world, but more especially we, must be changed.

Pardon my romantic meanderings, but the subject I am leaping into is no small subject. We are talking about what both the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party instinctively want, and yet will never achieve if they do not understand who they are as people. We are talking about an end to greed disguised as business, and end to federal rulings as the be all and end all of life and conscience, the death of “big” government and “big”labor and “big” business. We are talking about subsidiarity, locality, love of God, love of neighbor, love of land, love of home, love of life, and love of country.

We are talking about distributism.