Monthly Archives: June 2014

Inclusive and Exclusive Capitalism

Even though you weren’t invited, how could you have missed it? The Inclusive Capitalism Conference in London, on May 27, gathered some of the wealthiest folks on the planet. The 250 who were present reportedly hold one-third of controlled assets worldwide – over $30 trillion – almost on par with the richest eighty-five folks in the world who hold the equivalent wealth and capital of the poorest half of the world’s population, some 3.5 billion people. At the London conference, the keynote speaker list included Britain’s Prince Charles, Bill Clinton, Mark Carney (the Canadian-born governor of the Bank of England), and IMF chief Christine Lagarde. The conference was convened in part by financier Lynn Forester de Rothschild, the American-born wife of British subject Evelyn de Rothschild. London’s historic Guildhall served as the venue; porcini risotto graced the plates of the invitees for dinner. “Inclusive Capitalism”? The description “Exclusive Capitalism” might have been just as apropos.

Even so, the conference did propagate some nuggets of wisdom usually not parroted by the ultra-rich whose wealth tends to skew their viewpoints toward realms unrealistic. (Mitt “my wife drives two Cadillacs” Romney, for example, was not on the invite list.) Rising economic inequality was recognized as a destructive reality; Karl Marx’s injunction that capitalism “carries the seeds of its own destruction” was acknowledged as possibly truthful; and, Pope Francis was revered as prophetic in his economic prognostications and not pooh-poohed as an agent of socialism. (Rush Limbaugh, the bard of inequality and a frequent name-caller of Francis, was neither on the invite or extensive speaker list.)

As I document in my book Just a Little Bit More, the current era of excess (beginning in 1980) has brought forth increasing wealth inequality and negative social consequences. This same type of episodic excess was showcased during the Gilded Age and the 1920s. The outcomes weren’t good then and they’re not good today. Is there anyone left today who doesn’t understand that the current era of excess has made the rich richer while keeping the rest of us treading water; and, that too much economic inequality is not good for society? Is this the way things simply are – and there’s nothing we can do about it – in our modern and advanced civilization?

How interesting that the plutocrats – the ruling wealthy, a number of them present at Guildhall – now admit that grand inequalities are destroying a good thing and that certain outcomes of capitalism are dysfunctional. The consensus opinion – that capitalism is at risk – was on full display at the London conference. Wow – it’s been a long time coming, but it looks like a little change is taking hold. For years the one-two punch from the monied interests was 1) blatant denial that the rich were getting richer, and (when challenged on the denial’s claim) 2) the economic system rewards “winners” justly. The status quo is always defended by those who benefit most from it . . . but look, a change is gonna come.

Capitalism’s tendency to siphon wealth upward to an exclusive elite is not a new phenomenon; it’s been a reality since the Gilded Age. When it is kept in check (progressive tax rates, as an example), freedom is maintained for humble and ordinary citizens. Henry Demarest Lloyd was a rich man (by marriage), but progressive in his outlook. More than 100 years ago he proclaimed “liberty produces wealth and wealth destroys liberty.” It’s a statement that still packs a punch today, and it helps keep capitalism inclusive for the majority.

 

 

These and similar views are representative of what you’ll find in my book. Go to the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website to purchase a copy of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good.

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No Billionaire in Spanish – Part 2

This post is a continuation of a previous one – click here to see No Billionaire in Spanish – Part 1.

One of the Hebrews prophets told a story about a rich farmer who, after a bumper crop harvest, considered all his gain to be for himself. This forerunner of the “self-made man” met up with an unforeseen fate: Fool, this very night your life shall end. And all your things – whose shall they be? 

American English produced the word billionaire more than 100 years ago. Other languages, including Spanish, have yet to adopt the word. Spanish simply uses multi-millonario; the compound word fails, however, to grasp the expansiveness intended by the newer word. The first billionaire in the world, John Rockefeller, and his wealthy contemporary, Andrew Carnegie, inherently knew that their accumulations of cash and capital exceeded any previous markers; they chose to share from their voluminous excesses as a matter of necessity. Somehow, it would have been wrong for them to keep all they had for themselves and their families. As a matter of fact, Carnegie implored Rockefeller to do as he planned: disinherit family members. Whereas Carnegie and his wife Louise had only one daughter, Rockefeller and his wife Cettie were the parents of four children surviving into adulthood, and were not prepared to join Carnegie on the mission to keep their progeny from frivolously wasting their inheritances.

Do you know the history of taxation in the US? There have been tariff fees, excise (sales) and property taxes since the colonial era. It’s only been since 1913 – when Rockefeller’s and other affluent types’ incomes were cresting – that there has been a federal income tax. Very progressive (if you make more, you pay more) upon the highest incomes, only a small percentage of Americans originally paid federal income taxes. The phrase “ability to pay” was often used by President Woodrow Wilson to describe the tax’s purpose; those who make more have the responsibility to pay more. President Franklin Roosevelt used the same rationale decades after Wilson to guide the nation through the Depression and World War II. Since that time the majority of Americans have paid federal income taxes.

The implementation of the 16th amendment, 101 years ago, allowed for federal taxation and provided the government with a revenue stream that significantly outdistanced tariff duties. In this current day of individualism, the expectation that some contribute more than others because of their “ability to pay” is hotly contested. While that debate could fill multi-numerous blog posts, this post will simply close with the words of the Hebrew prophet – Jesus – who hinted at the dead end of considering personal wants above all others. “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves,” and are not, I will add, rich towards divine things, like the common good.

 

These and similar subjects are covered in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website and Amazon.

 

 

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No Billionaire in Spanish – Part 1

So there I was, preaching away in Spanish – predicando – like I’ve done for so many years. The topic was social inequality based on the words of one of the Hebrew prophets. And then it happened, as it does occasionally; I said something that didn’t quite sound right and now I was getting the look from a few of my parishioners. Pastor: “billonario” no existe en Español. After the service, we talked about what I had said and I was told by my native Spanish speakers – representing Mexico and a number of Central American countries – that even though they understood what I said and meant, a word for billionaire does not exist in Spanish. Carumba – the land of Ferdinand and Isabella which sent Cortés and Pizarro gold-digging to the New World doesn’t have billonario in its lexicon? Pastor, será mejor decir multi-millonario.

Of course, they are right. With a little research, we discover that billionaire is an American phenomenon and word. Based on the French millionnaire, American writers began using billionaire in the late 1800s – an obvious reflection of speaking patterns.* John Rockefeller wouldn’t become the world’s first billionaire until the 1910s, but what other society would or could birth such a term? America was, and still is, the society where the ability to risk and go beyond the boundaries is a great strength (and sometimes a weakness). American ingenuity, inventiveness, and drive have changed the world for the better – over and again. In the process, some have become billionaires; as applied to a person, the new term was within the bounds of American imagination and reach. Rockefeller (and his contemporary Andrew Carnegie) both inherently knew that they were treading upon new ground with their massive accumulations of capital. Their intuition inspired their grand efforts in philanthropy; they somehow knew the incredible quantities in their possession were meant not only for themselves and their families, but for others as well. Both worked hard to give away large portions of their excess, impressively so.

Do you know how much a billion is? Since all of us live in the post-Rockefeller world, we’re very accustomed to the word billionaire. Perhaps we assume it to be the next step beyond millionaire. It’s actually much more than that. A million seconds pass by in eleven and a half days. A billion seconds, on the other hand, pass by in thirty-one and a half years. Could you spend $500 a day ($15,000 monthly) – on food, rent, necessities, and some of the finer things of life? If you had a million dollars to start with, it would take you five and a half years to exhaust it at $500 a day. If you had a billion dollars to start with, you could spend $20,000 a day ($600,000 monthly) for sixty years and not even exhaust one-half of what you started with. A billion is significantly beyond a million; zero is closer to one million than one million is to one billion.

Languages are living systems, adapting and changing constantly. Soon enough, Spanish dictionaries will officially adopt the word billonario. The one-half billion native Spanish speakers in the world (about 100 million more than native English speakers) will be able to speak about and understand social inequality on more specific terms. Tener billones quiere decir tener responsibilidad grande.**

 

In Part 2 of this post, I’ll look at what more than 100 years of billionaire and its influence has meant for American and world society.

 

* The word equivalent of billion has been in use by the French and Italians since the 1600s. Originally, billion meant double million (bi); the British used this terminology previously, understanding a billion numerically as 1,000,000,000,000. The American understanding of nine zeros for billion is now commonly accepted worldwide; twelve zeros after the original digit, of course, designates trillion.

** To have billions means having great responsibility.

 

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, dealing with social inequality and similar issues, is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

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Eras of Excess and Church Attendance

One-hundred years ago when John Rockefeller became the first billionaire in the history of the world, he was asked “How much is enough?” He responded “Just a little bit more.” Though the exchange is most likely legendary, it paints an accurate portrait of the man and the age. Rockefeller’s own Gilded Age (1870-1900) was the first of three eras of excess in recent American history. The Roaring ’20s and the current era, beginning in 1980, share similar characteristics with Rockefeller’s era of excess: untenable inequalities in wealth and income, rising poverty, and increased social instability.

In my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, I argue that the dominant religion of American society – using Paul Tillich’s definition of religion as “ultimate concern” – is the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. It’s been a good religion that has fed, clothed, sheltered, and employed millions in the 250 years since the beginning of the Industrial era, many of these lifted from poverty. This religion can go too far, however, and consequently “break bad.” Americans work more hours than we used to – for the same relative pay; our materialistic pursuits enslave us to increasing debt; and, we believe (we are told as if by incantations) the solution to our travails is more and more economic growth. Just a little bit more, instead of serving as incentive for improvement, becomes a burden that shackles and confines.

Another commonality emerges in the study of the two most recent eras of excess. The Roaring ’20s experienced, as has our current era, decreases in church attendance and participation. Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their 2010 book, American Grace, tell the story of the ups and downs of American church attendance and participation. Undoubtedly a complex subject with many contributing social and cultural factors, declining church attendance in these two eras of excess seems more than coincidental. The 1920s saw the ascendancy of Wall Street; the phrase “playing the market” was popularized and the beneficent stock market was to provide for the young and old, eventually abolishing the need for charity and ending poverty. The promised land was within reach and church attendance and participation were not part of the journey. Church attendance in the United States flagged during the 1920s.*

Post-WW II America, continuing to the early 1960s, experienced exceptional church attendance and participation. It was a much more economically egalitarian era (for majority whites). General mainline church decline, however, has been evident since the 1970s; precipitous drop-offs in attendance and participation beginning in 2001 (to current) are of historic proportions. Again, many factors – busyness, changing modes of belief related to modernity, less reliance on overestimated self-reporting of attendance – contribute to the downward trend. I add another factor: reliance upon and widespread adoration of the religion (ultimate concern) of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. We live in a society that increasingly accepts market values – all things having a price – as the arbiter of what is good and right. Underachieving schools kids in Dallas paid to read books, donors paid to give blood, and people encouraged to think of themselves as brands, are all examples of the intrusion of market values to areas previously unaffected. Two generations ago Americans self-identified as citizens; today we self-identify as consumers.

Let’s do a theological thought experiment with Ephesians 2:19. Does the following slightly transformed text seem out of place? “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are consumers with the saints and also members of the household of God.” Pretty distasteful, isn’t it? One changed word puts an entirely different spin on the text (and it certainly puts the modern phrase church shopping in perspective). Even though the transformation in identity from citizen to consumer has been gradual, it is seemingly irrevocable.  The values proposed by an ethic of consumerism (wants and desires satiated now) and those of an ethic of the gospel (God’s provision for all) are in many ways opposed. Market values do have their proper place in society (and church), and benefit the common good in many ways. In our day and age, however, market values do not self-regulate. (If you ask your child to clean the table tonight after dinner, remember you’ll have to pay her or him to do so.) They tend to be intrusive, and have the ability to erode shared values (volunteerism, for example) that make our communities livable and enjoyable. Churches need to know where and when to draw the boundary lines, announcing to those who have ears to hear that there are values worth caring about other than market values.

Professional religious leaders have the responsibility of encouraging and maintaining boundary formation in and for their congregations. We are proclaimers of the gospel – do we need to be current with the economic theories and practices of the day? Yes – good stewardship demands it. As long as the society we inhabit religiously promises the nirvana of material pursuits and gains, we must stand up and proclaim it to be idolatrous. Filling up the pews in an era of excess is hard work, but countering the very culture of excess helps build a spiritual house in which the Divine Spirit dwells.

 

* Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Simon & Schuster (2010), 83-4.

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

 

 

 

 

 

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