Tag Archives: Rockefeller

When Money Speaks, the Truth is Silent

Reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money has solidified a long-held conviction: I simply don’t trust people who revere money and the attainment of wealth as a two-pronged highest good. Blame it on my stolid religious upbringing – a number of the Hebrew prophets and their protegé from Nazareth taught the same conviction, and my parents exemplified it to me and my siblings in their actions and speech. Mayer exposes the fallout of the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision that deemed corporations free-speech enabled persons. It’s not so much that ExxonMobil and Walmart have kicked in millions to the political process, Mayer says, but that excessively rich Americans – like the Koch brothers and George Soros, and a few others – are increasingly commandeering the process. Their massive financial contributions, through various “social welfare organizations,” is what she calls “dark money.” Those scummy and scathing political television ads, mailers, and social media ads – produced by “Shadow Group 501(c)(4)” or some such entity – that invade your space right before an election? Produced by non-profits that shield donor names from public knowledge, they promote the political agenda of donors via their unlimited contributions – questions rarely asked. Mayer documents that dark money spending has increased exponentially since the Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote in favor of Citizens United, a 501(c)(4) organization that promotes a conservative political agenda. Not only has the 2010 decision opened the door to dark money’s influence on elections, but also to rogue players like Russia.

Mayer argues that our commitment to the greatly cherished American attribute of liberty can go too far. The increasing lack of transparency in our political process threatens collective liberty. I’m not saying that money is bad or that people who have it (most all of us reading this post) are bad, either. Money, simply put, is one of the principal entities that can magnify the human propensity for good and for evil. Money implements and supports actions that uplift common good, but it also had a dark side. As I argue in my 2014 book, Just a Little Bit More, egalitarianism – equal opportunity, helping to mitigate imbalanced inputs that lead to outcomes of blatant inequality – is the foil that keeps liberty honest. I’ll call upon a Russian saying that aptly applies: When money speaks, the truth is silent. 

Gilded Age partisans John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, with their never before realized and gargantuan gains in wealth, gave a new permission to modern American society: to leave its egalitarian foundations behind. Rockefeller and Carnegie, in their defense, sensed the responsibility to redistribute their vast fortunes and acted upon it. What’s different today? As egalitarianism’s influence has faded, a number of today’s wealthiest sense no responsibility to redistribute their gains but instead use these gains to influence the political arena to their own benefit – the Koch brothers, as Mayer argues, being the most arrant example. Common good, in this post-Citizens United age, has become a private rather than a public ideal where freedom is narrowly defined (incorrectly) as the making of money, and wealthy and corporate interests are able to act with impunity. Mayer quotes the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin: “Total liberty for the wolves is death for the lambs.”

Citizens United is helping to crush the moderate voice in the political realm, notably on the Republican side of the aisle. Mayer quotes Lee Drutman, of the New America Foundation: “The more Republicans depend upon 1% of 1% donors, the more conservative they tend to be.” The Kochs’ preferred brand of cutthroat libertarianism, an outlier a generation ago, is ascendant today with its anti-government, anti-tax, anti-regulation, and anti-climate agenda. It has a few common intersections with Donald Trump’s populist nationalism, but is decidedly distinct from it. These two groups are out for the soul of the Republican party – moderate Republicans like John Kasich and Lisa Murkowski be damned.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that societies of increasing affluence tend to become more individualistic, jeopardizing their social cohesion. Sacks’s description perfectly frames the American society of the past thirty-five years, and helps explain its rising rates of inequality. Mayer fingers Steven Schwarzman and Charles Schwab as players on the Koch brothers’ dark money team, using their wealth politically to further serve their personal economic interests.

Conversely, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet, in the spirit of Rockefeller and Carnegie from a generation ago, understand the responsibility inherent to great riches. Philanthropy is not the greatest good, but its proper practice remains vital until that utopian day arrives when political and economic systems produce wealth sufficient for all of its members.

 

T. Carlos Anderson is a pastor and writer based in Austin, Texas. His first book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago). JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Commentary

Just a Little Bit More in Houston

I’ll be in Houston on Sunday, June 4 to  present themes from Just a Little Bit More, kicking off four Sundays of conversation on faith and inequality. Thanks to the folks at Chapelwood United Methodist Church for the invitation.  Chapelwood’s address is 11140 Greenbay Street on Houston’s west side. My presentation, starting at 11:00 a.m., is the first of four adult education sessions on Just a Little Bit More themes scheduled for the four Sundays in June. My good friend Kathy Haueisen and Noel Denison will lead the three remaining sessions.

Social and economic inequalities continue to command attention in American society, as they have for the last thirty-five years. How do people of faith respond to the ongoing challenges inequalities present? This general question brings us together for conversation that, hopefully, helps clarify our faithful response, individually and collectively, to some of the problems created by excessive inequalities.

Legend tells us that John Rockefeller, history’s first billionaire in the early twentieth century, when asked the question How much is enough? answered ingeniously and accurately described American culture: “Just a little bit more.” One hundred years later, Rockefeller’s legendary response still describes American culture spot-on and it serves as my starting point for the June 4th presentation.

We’ll also consider biblical passages and stories, including the parable of the rich fool from Luke 12 and Jesus’s intriguing statement to explain the parable of the sower (found in all three of the synoptic gospels): “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matthew 13:12, NRSV). This statement seemingly endorses inequality. We’ll talk about it and more! Come and join the conversation!

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Commentary

Jesus Was Not a Self-Made Man

I know what people mean when they say someone is a “self-made man” (I’ve rarely heard the phrase “self-made woman” spoken): a person who has risen from dire circumstances to success by hard work and ingenuity. Benjamin Franklin – the tenth son of a humble candle maker – printed, invented, flew a kite, authored, and became a great American patriarch. Frederick Douglass – the son of an unknown father (most likely his original master) and a slave mother – escaped slavery to preach, write, speak, and become a foremost abolitionist and statesman. These two giants of American history have exemplified the term in question for generations.

Franklin I appreciate and Douglass I revere. The credo of hard work and ingenuity I wholeheartedly support. But the term used to describe Franklin’s and Douglass’s accomplishments – self-made? I’m not a fan of the term, nor do I ever use it. Franklin went to school until he was ten at a time when few did, and apprenticed under a brother to learn the printing trade. The wife of a subsequent Douglass master taught young Frederick to read (later, her husband coerced her to renounce this radical activity). Even though Franklin’s beginnings were humble and Douglass’s cruel and unjust, neither could claim complete freedom from the guidance and assistance of others. A community of some sort provided a foothold and direction.

Later historical figures – Carnegie and Rockefeller – and contemporary figures – Oprah Winfrey and Nasty Gal proprietor Sophia Amoruso – fit the bill of achieving success while overcoming difficult circumstances. But again, none of these four could or can honestly say that they did it all on their own. Contemporary figures who have enjoyed business success, such as Ross Perot, Mark Cuban, Michael Jordan, Sean Combs, and Michael Dell all rose from middle class or upper-middle class beginnings.

Little human beings need more caretaking and rearing than any other mammal. Newly born bears, orangutans, and elephants all require less time and effort to develop into adults than do newly born Olivia and Ezra (two of the most popular baby names in the US during 2016). When the raising up of our young ones is negligent or haphazard, catastrophes often result. Combine this proven reality with US society’s increasing inequality, and current troubles could ripen into future disasters.

Robert Putnam, in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2015), joins many in the last few years to say that the phrase “self-made” has outlived its usefulness. Economic mobility in the US (the ability of a person to improve – or lower – their financial status) has not improved in the past fifty years. We no longer lead the world in economic mobility and many older Americans consequently overestimate its vibrancy. Other countries, such as Canada, France, and Denmark, boast higher rates of economic or social mobility than does the US. The cycle self-perpetuates: inequality makes the great American attribute of social mobility a myth because of its availability only to a minority. The majority of American males born today, for better or worse, will live into the same financial status of their fathers. For these, economic immobility is their American reality.

Putnam advocates public policy and private citizen action to support all that can be done to raise up (a phrase of striking symbolism) children born into impoverished situations: investments social and financial in poor neighborhoods, establishment of more mixed income housing developments, and ending the pay-to-play aspect of extracurricular activities in public school systems. Simply relying upon an American attribute increasingly unattainable won’t make for a better society for the generations that come after us. Individual initiative emboldened by hard work and ingenuity is still an absolute necessity, but it must be manifested within the greater context of communal support and societal resolve.

That today’s “self-made man” is a raging financial success who can live the life of ease and luxury is a clear bastardization of the term’s original understanding. In contrast, during Douglass’s day, the self-made man was a positive force in society for integrity, honesty, and love. The point of making money was not personal enrichment, but liberation from the necessity of work, freeing oneself to labor for the betterment of society.

Jesus was not a self-made man. A strong mother, a supportive family, and an established communal tradition raised up, in the course of thirty years, a son who advocated the renewal of society based upon love of neighbor, forgiveness, and compassion – values representative of the coming kingdom of God. Additionally, Jesus criticized excessive trust in wealth, labeling it a worldly, not kingdom of God, attribute.

What twenty-first century America needs: fewer “self-made” millionaires and billionaires who want to tell how they did it (so the rest of us can also strike it rich) and more citizens, be they rich or poor, who understand that strong and healthy communities produce the best and brightest individuals.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Commentary, Reviews

Our Complicity in the Trump Phenomenon, Part 1

The Trump candidacy for president has turned into a raging dumpster fire. It’s tempting to place the majority of the blame on Trump himself for the disastrous floundering to the November finish line; or upon his ardent supporters, unable to amass beyond 40 percent of the electorate because of weak support from women and practically no support from the increasing population of American minorities. I’ll argue here, to the contrary, that all of us have a hand in enabling this episode of combustible disgrace, because of the over-importance and overemphasis we place upon wealth.

Wealth, unquestionably, is good. Its right utilization benefits many and advances common good. Wealth is a blessing, especially when amply distributed throughout a society.

America has done a pretty good job of creating and sharing wealth over the generations through ingenuity, innovation, generosity, and good ol’ hard work. That said, our history (including our labor history) is marred by the memories and realities of slavery, extermination of native peoples, racial and gender prejudice, child labor, and overdependence on cheap foreign labor. Yet, we still move forward in the struggle to attain “liberty and justice for all.” As we continue forward on a shared journey, we seem to be making more progress than not. We value family and friendships, perseverance and persistence, second chances, accomplishments, and successes.

trump_first_debate_6785478654

But here’s where it gets even more complicated. We also revere the attainment of wealth as one of our highest social values. This value took Donald Trump to the top of the polls during the Republican primary season. Yes, he talked tough and hit a nerve with a small segment of society (very white) that wants to fix our immigration issues with deportations and walls. But because he is rich – fabulously so, just listen to him tell you – he and a number of surrogates claim that this characteristic ipso facto christens him to assume the presidency. He claims that he’s “the most successful person to ever run for president.” Mitt Romney’s nomination four years ago, in part, can be attributed to the same evaluation.

For better and for worse, Americans equate wealth with success. John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and other Gilded Age partisans, accumulating historic quantities of wealth during the boom of the Second Industrial era, unwittingly gave a new permission to the American experience: Unimagined and never before seen differences between the richest and poorest were deemed permissible. To Rockefeller’s and Carnegie’s credit, they responded to the new reality forged by their accumulated largesse by becoming two of the greatest philanthropists in history. Since that time, Americans have exhibited great reverence for their very richest and “most successful” citizens. Rockefeller and (especially) Carnegie have their detractors, but each has left an enduring legacy of benefit to the common good. Donald Trump comes in their wake, at best, as a shabby imposter; his weak showing as a philanthropist and braggadocio about not paying federal income tax reveal his contempt for greater society. Some of his followers are as overly taken with Trump’s sense of importance as is the nominee himself. But his self-indulgence – crystalized by accusations of sexual assault – has caught up with him. His own sense of entitlement drags his candidacy down into a dumpster.

Trump will leave a convoluted legacy when this election cycle is all said and done. His no-holds-barred approach during the primary season invigorated a zealous following (something Hillary Clinton lacked as a candidate and nominee). But Trump’s reach for the highest office as nominee will be forever characterized by a throng of exaggerations (he’ll get GDP “higher than 4 percent”), untruths (birtherism), and thin-skinned reactions to adversity (“the election is rigged”) deployed to defend his enormous (yet fragile) ego more so than to win over voters. After he convincingly loses the election, will the Trump candidacy will morph into Trump TV? If so, the successful rich guy and his surrogates will continue to enlighten a small, but loyal following on the merits of Trumpian alternative reality. Strip away Trump’s wealth from what he says and how he acts – would anyone pay attention to him?

When a society elevates the attainment and accumulation of wealth as its leading societal value, success becomes monopolized. Dr. Elizabeth Anderson (no relation), a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, says “I’m wary of any society that reduces success to a single definition. If a society is free, people will pursue different conceptions of the good and define success in different ways. They won’t be unified around a single common definition of success any more than they would be unified around a single religion.”* Anderson says that a successful society is one that is diversified in its understanding of good and doesn’t allow wealth to siphon upward. Anderson calls inheritance taxes the most just in the world, because they mitigate against the establishment of a permanent upper-class.

The social value that we as a society place on wealth helped cover up and diminish Trump’s well-known shortcomings, making his candidacy a possibility. The creed of wealth=success has some merit, but when it dominates all other possibilities of success (compassion, service, philanthropy, cooperation) it creates two specific problems: those who are not wealthy are deemed failures, and the extraction of value – whether from the environment or from other people – is seen as a mean justified by the end.

Jesus and the Hebrew prophets before him had a lot to say about money and wealth – mostly about the responsibilities to community and society of those who had wealth. According to these biblical voices, those who responsibly use wealth to uplift and support common good are deemed successful. This unforgettable and historic presidential election cycle will serve our society well if it can help create a cultural shift where wealth accumulation is not understood as the greatest marker of success, but as the emissary of responsibility. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, and many others have and do understand wealth in this light. Mr. Trump hasn’t gotten there yet.

*Check out this brief, yet insightful interview by veteran journalist Sam Pizzigati with Dr. Anderson on the Inequality.org website e-newsletter Too Much.

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in October 2016. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Octubre de 2016!

3 Comments

Filed under Commentary

“Just a Little Bit More” in Chicago

Basketball was my first love. My home church, St. Mark Lutheran in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, had (and still has) an activity center with a full-size hardwood basketball court. As a youngster, I would lay in bed at night dreaming about making it to the fifth grade. Back in that day, there were no basketball teams or leagues for pint-sized superstars-to-be. Fifth grade was the entry point for organized basketball. We played a competitive church league b-ball schedule for four years up until high school; the last two of those years we played on the church team and the junior high school team simultaneously. Those were the days. I’ve often said that I probably would not have become a pastor without that hardwood basketball court at the St. Mark Center. The center was built in 1969. From my vantage point now having served as a pastor for twenty-five years, I’m pretty impressed that the St. Mark church council and building committee in the ’60s had the courage and commitment to build that center – like I said – with a hardwood basketball court as its centerpiece. Today, the center still hosts basketball games and other activities for youth, and serves as a winter overnight sleeping area for homeless people via the PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) program.

st. mark presentation

JaLBM presentation at St. Mark Lutheran, Mt. Prospect, IL, September 14, 2015.

St. Mark also funded my seminary education. In the mid- to late-1980s, seminary tuition ranged from $3000-$4500/year, as education costs were significantly subsidized by the larger church. (Seminary tuition currently runs about $15,000/year.) I’m indebted to St. Mark for its support, and grateful for the people of St. Mark who helped shape my faith and understanding of the world. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

Consequently, it was a privilege and honor visit St. Mark and have a conversation on social and economic inequalities, and the common good. Some forty-five people gathered September 14th for presentation and discussion on Just a Little Bit More themes: Rockefeller’s permission, the dominant religion of the land (the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism), and Jesus as a social egalitarian. It was a good session. I’m grateful for the leadership of Nancy Snell, Dr. Lanny Wilson, Dr. Jean Rossi, and my dad—the original “Carlos”—Carl Anderson at St. Mark as they continue further discussions on JaLBM themes in their adult education book study series. Thanks to retiring Pastor Linnea Wilson and St. Mark’s new pastor, Christie Webb, for their support as well.

Messiah Lutheran Church, Wauconda, IL hosted a luncheon Q & A session for me and Just a Little Bit More after I preached at the congregation on September 13th. A number of folks at Messiah have read JaLBM and we engaged in fruitful conversation about the common good and the pursuit of justice in the midst of increasing societal inequality. Special thanks to Pastors Dawn Mass Eck and Ben Dueholm (who has written an excellent article on inequality for The Christian Century, linked here) for facilitating a good weekend for their guest preacher at Messiah. I preached on Hispanic ministry as Messiah embraces a study emphasis this fall, “Church in Changing Neighborhood.” The public school district that serves Wauconda, a northern Chicago suburb, has a student population 26 percent Latino; a generation ago there was minimal Latino presence in Wauconda.

It was gratifying to be at “home” again in the Chicago area, seeing faces old and new, sharing some of my JaLBM work and Hispanic ministry experience.

I don’t play basketball anymore, but I haven’t forgot my hardwood court roots. Thanks, St. Mark!

 

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. The full-length book (257 pgs) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

Leave a comment

Filed under Commentary

The Annual Gates Letter and the Limits of Philanthropy

When we talk about Andrew Carnegie, the robber baron, we pronounce his name CAR-neg-ie. Yes, that was the guy who had his steel workers doing 12 hours days/7 days a week. When you hear his name spoken on NPR radio, however, it’s Car-NEG-ie. That’s the guy who founded and funded libraries, museums, and so much more. Carnegie – however you pronounce it – felt a moral obligation to give away his fortune for societal benefit. Ah, good ol’ philanthropy – a fantastic builder of common good, even if the utilized fortune was questionably attained.

John Rockefeller Sr. is the greatest philanthropist in the history of the world, not only because of the sheer volume of his giving (more than $1.5 billion during his and his son’s lifetimes – close to $20 billion in today’s dollars), but more so because he was the first mega-philanthropist wanting to get at the root causes of societal problems. As quoted by biographer Ron Chernow, Rockefeller explained his mature view of philanthropy: “Our guiding principle . . . to benefit as many people as possible. Instead of giving alms to beggars, if anything can be done to remove the causes which lead to the existence of beggars, then something deeper and broader and more worthwhile will have been accomplished” (Titan, Vintage, 1998, p. 314). The Rockefeller foundation has uplifted the common good by various accomplishments: eradicating hookworm in the southern US and in fifty-two countries across six continents, developing a vaccine for yellow fever and other diseases, supporting minority and higher education, establishing medical and social science research centers, among many others.

bill-melinda-gates-425ce

Melinda and Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum – Davos, Switzerland

Bill and Melinda Gates have followed in Rockefeller’s and Carnegie’s paths and readily share their enthusiasm for philanthropy’s continued upside. Bill and Melinda Gates, quite simply, are in Rockefeller’s category as philanthropists. They are committed to fighting inequity, and have joined with investor and philanthropist Warren Buffet to form the Giving Pledge, encouraging fellow super-wealthy to commit to give away more than half of their fortunes through philanthropy during their lifetimes or in their wills. Through their own foundation, established in 2000, the Gateses battle hunger, poverty, and disease and also uplift education. You might not know as much about Melinda as you do about her husband. A native of Dallas and 1982 valedictorian of Ursuline Catholic Academy, she has both an undergrad degree (in computer science) and an MBA from Duke University; she began to work for Microsoft in the late 1980s. After dating for six years, Melinda French and Bill Gates married in 1994. They have three children; she is a practicing Roman Catholic and has her husband’s support in raising their children in the Catholic expression of the Christian faith.

The Gates’ 2015 annual letter makes a bold claim: “The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. And their lives will improve more than anyone else’s . . . These breakthroughs will be driven by innovation in technology — ranging from new vaccines and hardier crops to much cheaper smartphones and tablets — and by innovations that help deliver those things to more people.” Wow – that’s pretty ambitious. For the most part, I think they are right.

The long-running industrial era with its call to work and accompanying rewards has lifted so many from the grips of poverty (including, for those reading this blog, most of our own ancestors). And that process continues today in poor countries – look what’s happened in China and India in the last twenty-five years, and most recently in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Cambodia. The improvements that can be made in underdeveloped countries are astounding and are enhanced by today’s technological possibilities.

Have you heard of the term technological optimism? It refers to a type of thinking that expects the problems of the world – economic, social, political – to be solved, or at least, assuaged, by technological advances. Bill and Melinda Gates, unequivocally, are technological optimists.

For the large majority of us in developed countries, living with the benefits of industrialization, technological advances are less advantageous. Being able to watch a movie on one’s phone – an example of technological advance – is not a life-or-death issue. In the developed world, we more so deal with something called the energy-complexity spiral (see Joseph Tainter and Tad Patzek’s excellent book, Drilling Down, Springer, 2012). The availability of incredibly cheap energy (coal and oil) has made possible – literally, fueled – the industrialized development of society. As we try to solve problems in the advanced world (how to play a movie on a hand-held device, or how to make a new anti-cancer drug less nausea-producing) more energy, knowledge, and money are typically required. Remember when the thermostat in your living room had a simple on-off switch and a dial temperature control? Now your “climate control device” houses a mini-computer and you often need to consult the manual, or call a technician, in order to manipulate it. Part of the energy-complexity spiral is that problems and solutions tend to get more complicated (and costly) as time marches forward.

The Gates’ annual letter says we’ll need to figure a way “to develop energy sources that are cheaper, can deliver on demand, and emit zero carbon dioxide.” Agreed – but, unfortunately, we are a long way off. We’re still drilling and burning oil like never before and the waste sinks on this poor planet get more exhausted all the time. The temporary low price of oil – mid-2015 near a five-year low – doesn’t help the situation. At the very least, we need to utilize an additional tax on gasoline to restore a sense of value to this precious commodity.* And because we’ve not yet backed off of oil, we’re stalling on the technological advances that will help produce better energy sources for tomorrow.

The main problem with an economy-produced fortune, like Rockefeller’s or Gates’, is that it necessarily comes imbued with technological optimism. I’m a supporter of technological advance, but I’m also wary of its allure and promises. Skyping on my phone is cool, but face-to-face relationships that create trust are the foundation of a good democratic society. Drought-resistant seeds in Africa, more cell phones for the women of Bangladesh, and widespread vaccine coverage for children in Nigeria is good . . . but we can’t duplicate developed world devices, machines, and technologies for the rest of the world based on how much fossil fuel we currently use. It would be a carbon emissions melt-down and waste sink nightmare. Perhaps we could also have some major philanthropic support to fund studies and projects that look at steady state economies, inclusive of how to slow down American consumerism while considering the disparate state of standards of living around the globe. Is there a current technology to remind us that less can be more?

Philanthropy is good, but it’s not the highest good. If philanthropy is understood to be the highest good we can produce, it then becomes no more than a paternalism that perpetuates the status quo. Creating systems of economy that are thoroughly just – where people don’t get left behind or left out – is the highest good. Capitalism in the 21st century is very good, but it can be and it can do better. We are responsible for making it better for today and for tomorrow.

At the end of the Gates Foundation letter, Bill and Melinda make an invitation to readers to join the movement by becoming “world citizens.” I’ve joined. The end of the letter calls for the “expanding of compassion” among world citizens. Part of that expansion, ironically, is using less – a mindset which absolutely cuts into grain of today’s conventional wisdom that more is better. How to get more out of less – that’s not only efficient, but also compassionate.

* Proceeds of an additional energy tax could be used to fix crumbling American infrastructure and support development of better energy sources.

 

The views expressed in this blog are reflective of my work in the 2014 book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good.  

Click here to purchase Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Paperback, $14.95. You will be redirected to the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

Click here if you prefer to purchase JaLBM from Amazon. Ebook available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

Click here for Summary Version and Study Guide from the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website, ideal for book clubs and community of faith study groups.

Leave a comment

Filed under Commentary