Posts Tagged ‘Capitalism’

God and Mammon (Revisited)

April 11, 2017

Here’s an old post (lightly edited) from seven years ago that I’m putting up again. It deals with one of my biggest annoyances: the false assertion that Americans are a “religious people.”

I read in different places that the United States is a Christian nation, that Americans are a deeply religious people, and that as a religious people, we are naturally conservative, since religion is conservative. But not one of these statements is true. We are not a Christian nation, neither legally nor spiritually; we are not religious; and religious people are not conservative—at least not in the conventional, thoughtless sense of the word.

When writers and commentators say that we are a religious nation they’re simply taking at face value the assertions of the self-described “religious.” In this country, we have an easy definition of religious. Essentially, it means anybody who says they believe in God. Atheists are content with the definition since they prefer that religion appear shallow. And the “religious” are content with it because it lets them off the hook. They don’t have to take on some extraordinarily difficult teachings. One notable example:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

This is not a conservative idea; it’s a radical idea. It’s universal, unequivocal, and has many implications, few of which are ever addressed by anyone within Western Civilization. One of its simpler meanings is that we shouldn’t desire “things.” And yet creating the desire for things is a basic tenet of our economic system. Economists, businessmen, and politicians are deeply concerned with how to get people borrowing and spending. We have to “grow the economy,” as they say. And the great majority of Americans believe that we should always be enjoying an ever higher standard of living. When that doesn’t happen, somebody has to take the blame in the next election.

One of the problems with defining God as a being—the anthropomorphic idea of God—is that people can soften an idea like “you cannot love God and mammon,” by insisting that they do indeed love “the big guy” more than they love things. They can talk to Him and assure Him that they love Him more than money and then feel as though they’ve met the requirement. But if you consider God to be truth, the picture changes. Loving truth more than money means living solely by principle. The deep meaning of “You cannot serve God and mammon” says that you should abandon your materialist existence and follow truth—never do anything simply to make money. To those who would question this, I will point out that the lines immediately following “You cannot serve God and mammon” are, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, not about your body, what you shall put on.” (Jesus insisted that his disciples leave their jobs and become homeless beggars.) Historically speaking, this idea is not at all strange. There are many people in many different cultures who have pursued it. It’s strange only to us here in the modern-day Western world, where power, comfort, and entertainment have become paramount. It’s not my point exactly to suggest that anybody renounce their livelihood and pursue this other way of life. But it might be helpful if people were to recognize that, as it currently stands, we are not really a religious people, that we are not really a Christian nation (we would have to follow the teachings of Christ to be that), and that religious ideas are not “conservative.” If we understood that much, it might be helpful in getting us to speak frankly with one another again.

The Problem of the Homeless

February 28, 2016

The City of San Francisco made the news recently by breaking up a homeless encampment on the streets, a long row of tents that Judy and I often drove past on our way to Rainbow Grocery, the store we use. The camp was the subject of a lot of controversy, especially after the CEO of some tech company wrote an open, complaining letter to the mayor, demanding that the mayor do something. The poor guy was sick of having to look at the homeless. It’s commonplace to say that San Francisco has a “serious homelessness problem,” but the entire country does, really. I read recently that my hometown of Vancouver, Washington has homeless camps. The homeless are more noticeable in a place like San Francisco, that’s all. I myself was without a home for 15 years, living on the street in San Francisco from 1973 to 1988. I wasn’t what most people picture when they hear that word, “homeless,” but I was out among the homeless much of that time, and I have a decent idea of what’s going on. When I hear people talk about the problem, I realize that no one even comes close to understanding it, that it’s only going to grow.

For a long time I’ve been trying to figure out a simple way of describing what I see, but only recently did I find the words I was looking for: We live in a system that creates homelessness as one of its inevitable byproducts. This society has a near-religious belief in competition, and wherever you have competition, you have, inevitably, winners and losers. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like water boiling at 212 degrees Fahrenheit: It’s the only possibility. The homeless are the ones who have lost the game. As the competition heats up—as it has been ever since Reagan—the winners keep grabbing more and more, so we have more and more losers of the game. People like the CEO of that tech company are either ignorant or arrogant. Or both. Whether he sees it or not, he‘s a huge part of the problem.

When I was on the street I was subjected to all kinds of absurd situations and arrogant treatment. One example is when people become furious with homeless people for defecating on the street. This society gives them no place else to go. There are few public toilets, at least ones that don’t cost money , and restaurants, cafes, and so on don’t want the homeless in their businesses. I never ended up in a situation where I had to do “my business” in public, but I came close a few times. When you are in an absurd situation like that and you’re surrounded by people who can’t understand the most obvious and simple thing, you tend to lose your respect for them. You end up doing whatever you feel like doing.

If we genuinely want to end the problem, we have to abandon the idea that it’s okay to accumulate as much wealth as possible. It’s not okay to be a billionaire. And if we can’t abandon the idea, then we have to prepare ourselves for the inevitable epidemic of poverty. It’s that cut and dried.

Today’s Quotes

August 26, 2012

I found these two quotes on the Internet today. (I guess it’s good for something.):

“There is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism than through Ayn Rand’s writings and works.” Paul Ryan, Republican Nominee for Vice President

“My religion is just Ayn Rand’s philosophy with ceremony and ritual added.” Anton LaVey, Founder, Church of Satan

(Someone will probably point out that Paul Ryan recently renounced Ayn Rand. I don’t believe him. He’s just another politician doing whatever it takes to get elected.)

Money: An Introduction

August 22, 2012

I’ve been having some difficulty deciding what to write about. With the election approaching, there seems to be an awful lot to discuss. I’ve finally settled on the one topic that’s central to everything else in this country: money.

When I was seventeen years old, I took a train trip from Germany to Greece, and along the way I had to pass through what was then called Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was a Marxist country, and as an American I was of some interest to the other passengers in my car. At one point a man approached me rubbing his forefinger and thumb together and smiling devilishly. “Capitalist. Eh?” he said. At that point in my life, I’d not given the question much serious thought. I wanted to be some kind of a poet, not an intellectual. It took me a while to come up with a response. Finally, I shook my head “no.” The man was visibly shocked. He stared at me, and in a voice filled with bewilderment and disbelief asked, “Communist?” I didn’t have to think about that one, and, again, I shook my head “no.” He still wanted an answer, and I looked to the floor of the train for one. After a bit, I raised my head and told him, “Social Democrat.” His face broke out into a huge smile and he gave me a hug, saying happily, “Me, too!”

While I’d heard of Social Democrats, I wasn’t  sure what they were exactly. In that moment it was a shorthand way of saying that I thought we should all take care of one another, but that we shouldn’t have to live under oppressive systems of government. In the past 43 years, my thinking hasn’t changed much—except that I now have much stronger reasons for believing what I do. Lately, I’ve been reading some books about what’s happening with money and the economy, and I have things I want to say. But I’m going to say them in a series of short posts. As always with this blog, I’m not prepared to sit down and write long ones. I have to reserve that kind of effort for Street Song.

Speaking of which, I’m still on my break. I’ve mostly been taking care of the small tasks of daily life and trying to get some rest. I’d been wondering if anxiety might begin to press in on me as I got closer to the starting point for the third draft (two weeks from now), but so far it hasn’t happened. My inner self seems comfortable with the fact and confident. A good sign.

An Inside Job

October 25, 2010

This weekend I saw the new documentary film, Inside Job, which is about the economic crisis of 2008. It’s very well done, and I recommend it. (It’s web site is here and includes a list of theaters where it will soon be showing.) I’ve been reading about the crisis and have had some trouble understanding the economic jargon. The film helped me clarify meanings. Mostly, though, it confirmed what I already knew, that the trouble began with Reagan administration and its push for deregulation. The film did give me a greater realization of how massively corrupt—sociopathic, really—the capitalist system has become. But the most striking moment for me was a particular image of skyscrapers and cranes in some Asian country (I don’t remember which) that made me aware of how completely globalization has ensnared the world. The system is intended to be “too big to fail.” We’ve been dumbed down to think that we can muddle along indefinitely and that we have entered a road from which there is no turning back. But everything that is corrupt undermines itself until it finally collapses. That’s universal law. We have the choice of dismantling the system deliberately and gracefully or of waiting for catastrophe. Even if we do get the corporations and banks under control, oil scarcity is going to put an end to the current system. Our way of life is absolutely unsustainable. Unbelievably, the political energy seems to be running in the direction of greater deregulation. Like everyone, I’m waiting to see how this election goes. If the right wing ideologues get what they want and the markets are let off the leash, we will be putting ourselves in line for economic chaos and failure on a scale that will dwarf what we saw just two years ago.

I should add that the film makes it clear that many of the people who got us into this mess (Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and so on) are in positions of great power under Obama. As one interviewee, Robert Gnaizda, says of Washington D. C. in general, Democrat and Republican, “It’s a Wall Street government.” It gives me the creeps.

Conservative and Liberal

June 17, 2009

I regard the way that most people use the words “conservative” and “liberal” as distortions of the language. Conservative and liberal are not states of being; they are modes. It doesn’t make any sense to say that someone is a liberal or a conservative. Liberal and conservative have more to do with energy. There are times when you can be liberal with your energy, and there are times when you have to be conservative with it. But you can’t be one way all the time. Nevertheless, we are trying to describe particular ideas when we use the two words as nouns, even if they have little to do with what the words actually mean. Conservative has generally referred to a person who clings to tradition or one who is cautious with money. But in today’s political arguments, it more often means someone who sees the rights of the individual as superior to those of the community.

In a healthy society—and in my opinion there are few, if any, these days—there is a balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the community. We really are all in this together, and to insist that one or the other is more important is to be an extremist. One of the symptoms of extremism is that one sees everything in terms of a great struggle between Good and Evil. During the Cold War, the two extremist philosophies of Marxism and Laissez-Faire Capitalism (today’s “conservatives”) went after the other’s jugular. The Marxists were just as convinced of the righteousness of their cause as the Capitalists were of theirs. I think it self-evident that it is extremism itself—doesn’t matter what kind—that leads to evil.

Now that the commies are gone, Conservatives tend to see Liberals as the Great Enemy. Linguistically speaking, conservative and liberal are opposites. But politically speaking, they’re merely sloppy tags and don’t actually represent two ideas in strict opposition to one another.

So what’s a liberal? In current, between-the-lines usage, I think of “a liberal” as someone who sees the need for balance between the individual and the community, who is nearer the objective philosophical center, but feels the rage of the right wing and is somewhat timid about standing up for the balance that they know is necessary. Liberals, then, aren’t really left of center—at least not to the left of the center of truth. They’re a wee bit too far right.

The Best Economy

June 6, 2009

I find the current arguments about capitalism and socialism tiresome. Both systems are blind to their effects and therefore dangerous. Today’s economic machinery demands constant attention, constant labor, constant learning of new skills. The worst part all the devotion of time and energy to maintenance is that it diverts us from our true task in life.

Existence is a Great Riddle. What is existence? What does it exist in? If you think about it too hard and in the wrong way, it can drive you insane. But we are not to take it for granted. It’s vital that we understand the Great Riddle.  Many people consider this a purely scientific question. But science can never come to grips with it because, despite appearances, the Universe is not fundamentally a material “thing.” The riddle is a spiritual issue. Happily, its resolution cannot be found in dogma, churches, or books. The only place we can find that answer is inside ourselves. This is an ancient belief—ancient because it’s true.

During the time that we are suspended between the twin poles of life and death, we’re supposed to try to understand what we’re doing here. To me, the best economy is one that enables human beings to provide for their essential needs while at the same time allowing us the freedom to explore and to appreciate reality. People say, “So, what’s your plan?” I don’t think it needs to be systematized in advance. The best way is to work in a direction that has integrity and to let things come into being as the need arises, organically and on-the-fly. It requires that we be intelligent, courageous, and just. Why shouldn’t we be that way?

Reaganism and Reality

February 27, 2009

When I was in the ninth grade, in 1966, I was formally introduced to the topic of Capitalism. My social studies teacher, Mr. Lacey, explained that while it was the best system in the world, it had experienced difficulties in the 1930s, due to a form of Capitalism called “Laissez-Faire,” a form that had been thoroughly discredited. Since that time, we’d learned how to regulate the system, and instances such as the Great Depression were unlikely to happen again.

The place I grew up in was not at all liberal. And I doubt that what Mr. Lacey expressed was merely his personal opinion. It was the middle-of-the-road, official position of society as a whole. I was aware that there was a stain of nut-cases who went around doing things like erecting billboards that called for the impeachment of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren. I was surprised when one of those nut-cases got himself elected Governor of California—Ronald Reagan. For years, that man uttered some of the most extreme and violent comments made by anybody on the American political scene. I was appalled later when they were able to pass him off as a kindly old man and get him elected President. He was not a kindly man; he was mean. He was an actor. He lived in a fantasy world and told people what they wanted to hear. And because he believed in his fantasies, people had faith in him and voted for him.

When Reagan re-opened the door to “Laissez-Faire,” I remembered Mr. Lacey. I’ve never studied economics, but some things are self-evident. I’ve been predicting this economic crisis for years. The ideas that greed is a virtue (as some have insisted) and that markets are purely independent, self-regulating systems like the weather have always struck me as transparently absurd. To set up a system where the mass of people depend on the benevolence of the wealthy is dangerous. It’s unbalanced. I saw the disaster coming. I knew that what was happening in real estate could not continue. All these things were easy to see. I’m not claiming an especially keen intelligence. It’s just that I never got caught up in and blinded by the fantasies that Reagan was selling. I’ve known plenty of other people who saw this coming, but we were all on the sidelines. So now we’re paying the price for the materialists’ fantasy. And it’s going to get a lot worse. That’s the truth. But we’ve been needing this. Life is not about money.