Things I Wish I’d Blogged in 08: It’s Not the Economy, Stupid! It’s the Stupid Free Market Economists!
Ever since September, when even the privileged classes in America could no longer deny the economic crisis of the neo-liberal global economy (the poor in United States and the developing world have of course been on the front lines of this crisis for decades,) there has been a struggle underway to define what it means.
Like many long-standing critics of the free market, privatized consumer economy that has taken shape over the past thirty years the poor have been forced and the relatively privileged bribed to accept, I am not surprised by this crisis. An economy driven by ever-increasing discretionary consumer spending (i.e., mostly unnecessary if not harmful consumption), facilitated by an ever growing mountain of personal and corporate debt, has always seemed to me to be a pyramid scheme – a deadly one that will not only deprive the poor and destroy the environment, but inevitably collapse and leave all but the wealthiest in deep trouble. I am afraid the current crisis is the first of a large, ill-omened flock of chickens coming inevitably home to roost. We had better wake up and start thinking about a different kind of economy – responsible, sustainable, fair. The old economy of boundless greed and growth has run its course. The only question is whether we will accept this and build alternatives of our own choosing that can sustain a good life, or whether we will ignore it and wait passively for catastrophic collapse.
Obviously, the current crisis provides a fresh incentive to consider big questions like this for the multitudes who have gone about their lives with little awareness of the social and environmental consequences of participating in a runaway consumer economy. But the mainstream news, punditocracy and most politicians, well-kept by their corporate masters, continue to do their best to make alternatives to the status quo seem unthinkable if not immoral. This year’s anxiety about whether consumers would indulge in an orgy of holiday shopping sufficient to keep the economy going was tinged with desperation; commentators could be heard on NPR talking as though the decision to scale back on spending was an irrational, even a selfish decision.
One of the most appalling examples of this could be found in Adam Gopnik’s commentary in the Jan 5th New Yorker, which compared the sour mood of the American consumer to a child who has bumped its head on a doorknob, and is breathlessly poised to throw a tantrum, but holds momentarily back, distracted by something perhaps more interesting on the horizon. The parents of course, hold their breath with the child, wondering which way it will go, hoping “that this time the child will somehow compose herself, see that her injury isn’t life-threatening, take a breath, find distraction in a bright, shiny object, and laugh.”
Gopnik argues that in the present moment, Americans are acting like that child who has bumped her head:
Economies are emotional processes. The child’s gasp is its first try at an economic act, with utility, emotion, fear, and calculation all boxed up in a single red-faced package. Consumers have stopped consuming, the papers say, for the same reason that the child has decided to cry: I’m really damaged, we want the world to know; attention must be paid. The stimulus package to come is meant to serve as our shiny distraction on the horizon, to induce us to think, O.K., maybe it’s not that bad—I may as well take a breath and shop. When you turn to wise men for wisdom now, you learn that feelings—the interplay of fear and faith—generally trump rational economic decisions. The psychology of bump and wait and cry, it turns out, always trumps political economy—or, rather, it is political economy.
Far from adjusting our expenditures to the needs of the moment, it seems, we tend to wildly overswing, according to our mood. The difference between the provident ant, who cautiously saves up for winter, and the carefree grasshopper, dancing and hopping, is a matter of what Keynes called “animal spirits.” It is better for the common lot if each of us is a hopper (and a shopper) rather than a hoarder. Being a nation of grasshoppers is allied to being a nation of hope.”
That’s as nice a statement as you’ll find of citizenship in a free market consumer economy: the citizen is reduced to a consumer; anything but more consumption is regarded as irrational, never mind what is being bought or for what purpose; thrift and providence are suspect at best; spending is the surest way to serve the common good.
Is this the kind of world you want to live in? Of course not. Most people have never accepted that a world whose dominant value is the personal gratification of every whim through mindless consumption is a good one. But they have unfortunately been persuaded by the global power elite that it’s the only world possible.
But it’s not at all clear that people will continue to accept the inevitability of the status quo as the global economy continues to unravel. What is clear is that the struggle to define this crisis is on, and the future of the country, of the world, is at stake.
So make a resolution this year to talk about the big questions with your family and friends, to play an active part in this great struggle. You don’t have to just suck up and buy it anymore.
Ok, wish is way, way the wrong word here. I have no particular desire to be misunderstood, misrepresented, and excoriated, and trying to articulate anything outside of the two polar black holes that constitute “debate” on this toxically sterile issue guarantees that this will happen.
Any objective observer of the abortion rights issue in the United States will I think have to agree that partisans on either extreme are not actually talking to each other. Extremists on both sides – and I do have friends and colleagues at both extremes – so badly distort opposing arguments, so viciously impugn the moral character of those who disagree with them, and so vehemently insist that this issue is of transcendent importance that it threatens to destroy the possibility of civil political discourse entirely. Even partisans of the extremes tend to agree on this – though they know that it is the other side that is doing all the distorting. So, like most people, who I think intuitively at least have a much more nuanced position (which, of course, partisans at the extremes denounce as “soft” or “unclear”), I have studiously avoided the issue. No good will come of handing a match to someone dousing the room in gasoline, eh?
But during this presidential election year, it was just about impossible for a Catholic to avoid the issue – even though the candidates did. For example, after Sunday mass one October morning I found a leaflet on my car informing me – complete with graphic photos and “dripping blood” fonts – that a vote for Obama was complicity with the murder of millions of babies, and thus meant a renunciation of Catholicism and a sure ticket to Hell. As a Catholic who felt that it was important to support the modest change in direction Obama offers from the catastrophic course the United States has been following, I felt it was important to respond. So, while I did not address the issue of abortion rights per se, I did write a post relying on the Bishop’s document on faithful citizenship to advance the obvious but modest argument that a pro-life Catholic could in fact vote for Obama in good conscience.
Predictably, the post drew hostile comments, ranging from fairly civil renunciation to bitter vituperation. However, I was gratified that Obama won the majority of the Catholic vote, leading to speculation (and some handwringing in the Catholic blogosphere) that Catholics will no longer constitute a reliably conservative voting block on the basis of the single issue of abortion.
All of this leaves me with a feeling of uneasiness, as though we are trying to ignore a landmine that we know is buried somewhere in the vicinity. Quite beyond its ability to destroy political discourse, abortion does remain a profound moral problem, the occasion of so much terrible pain in our world. So I find myself wishing to say something about abortion, to be able to engage in a real conversation that could get past the vituperative cant of the extremes, that would actually regard the ideas of Catholic teaching and liberal political ideology not as weapons to castigate those we disagree with, but as tools for forging greater understanding.
To partisans of either extreme, before denouncing me please note that I have not actually said anything about abortion rights yet. Please tell me what would be wrong with having a real conversation? What would it look like? What would be the rules?
How much good we could do. How do we begin?
Of course, the previous post notwithstanding, my relationship to the Church is not all gladness and light. (A lot of my friends, both churched and un-churched are more than a little puzzled about how and why I remain Catholic). One of the tragedies of contemporary Catholicism is the passion and talent that is wasted – even drive away – by barring women and married people from the priesthood. Yes, I’m familiar with the arguments for an exclusively celibate priesthood – but I don’t find them persuasive.
I do not say this out of hostility to the celibate priesthood. The beautiful ministry of so many priests I have known gives witness to the power and vitality of this way of being a priest. But it is not the essence of being a priest. Nor do I say this out of a liberal commitment to equal rights. It is not just a matter of discrimination against people, denying them something to which all have an equal claim. Vocation is beyond mere rights talk, and Catholic women and married people called to the priesthood can and will find other ways to answer their call, both in an out of the Catholic Church.
It is the Church, the Body of Christ, which suffers most by this dismemberment.
For me, the beauty of every Mass is tinged with the pain of what we have lost, of the gifts we are throwing away.
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been twenty-nine years since my last confession.” Yep, this advent I received the sacrament of reconciliation for the first time since the last time I was made to at the Catholic high school I attended. I didn’t ask my Confessor, but I presume I had the record — at least for the week.
What brought me back after all these years? My 8-year-old daughter is nervous about her upcoming first reconciliation, and I wanted to reassure her. And it seems wrong to ask your children to do something you are unwilling to do yourself.
What kept me away? The memory of the banal childishness of being made to do it in Catholic high school, part my long alienation from a suburban Catholic Church deeply complicit with some of the worst aspects of American society. (I began to write about in my very first post, but never followed up.) In examining my conscience, one of the biggest things to come to grips with in some 29 years of un-reconciled sinning was my broken relationship to the Church. My conclusion is that my estrangement from the Church was not a sin, was understandable and perhaps even appropriate given my experience. But it was wrong to give up on the Church, and as it came between me and God, it was a sin. Of that I repent.
How was it? Good. My Confessor gave me a wise and surprising penance. If you have not been to confession for a long time, perhaps for the same sorts of reasons, find a priest you trust and go. You can go as an adult now. It’s not dark It’s not about shame. Going back reminded me of why I am glad to be a Catholic.
For Advent 2007, I wrote a series of posts describing how dissatisfied I have become by the way that we (both as secular society and as Church) have come to celebrate Christmas, and suggested some alternatives. I have been heartened that a growing number of people seemed to share that view, as evidenced by how many views those posts have gotten and the rising prominence of resources like Redefine Christmas, a website that encourages and facilitates charitable giving in place of the excessive gifting with meaningless things.
But when the Black Friday orgy of Xmas shopping began with a Wal- Mart worker being trampled to death by thousands of frantic bargain hunters, it seemed there was alas more to say on this. But I’m afraid I was too busy actually engaged in counter-cultural Christmas preparations (e.g., marking the days of advent with our children through the Jesse Tree tradition – and failing to do so (e.g. up late at night hunting ebay for American Girl gear and Kingdom Hearts II. I’m ok with getting some stuff for my kids and (mostly) with the stuff that we get, but it still feels wrong to burden Christmas with it).
Two things seem obligatory for any self-respecting blogger (an oxymoron perhaps?): some kind of year-end best of/worst of list, and a constant stream of apologies for not blogging enough. Eager to get 2009 off to a good start, we have decided to meet these two obligations in a series of brief posts outlining 10 things I wish I’d blogged about in 2008.
Here’s the list – posts to follow over the next few days:
- Redeeming Christmas
- Married and Women Clergy
- It’s the Economy, Stupid! Stupid Economists!
- Cars and Bikes
- Gaming for Change
- JustFaith Program
These are not necessarily the most important things I failed to write about in 2008, just some things on which I might actually have had something to say but never got around to saying. Of course I may still get around to writing about some of these in 2009, and you can nudge in that direction by responding in the comboxes. Or you can let me know what you think about what this blog could be but isn’t.
Just remember, you didn’t read it here first.
In our last royal post — the day after the presidential election — we noted that after a day of flying the flag, it would be back to work. Obviously we didn’t mean blogging!
But the Prince has indeed been working hard, catching up with work at his day job as a historian of medicine and a busy academic. The first week of December, I went to London to take part in a workshop on the neurological patient in history. This was my second international conference of the semester — the first being to the lovely German city of Mainz in Sept. Preparing for two major presentations set me way back in my quotidian teaching and administrative duties — which all caught up to and just slammed me the last few weeks of 08. And then there was advent and the holidays, and the need to spend more time with family.
So, lest anyone have worried, let it be known that Prince L will remain committed to this humble blog as an ongoing statement of his responsibilities and commitments as a Catholic and a citizen in 21st century America. And as it is customary to begin the year with statements of resolve, let us summarize those responsibilities and commitments as a resolution to work in whatever small ways we can for more love, more peace, and more justice in this broken world.
But when the pressures of time force me to make choices among these various responsibilities and commitments, this blog will of course be among the first thing to go!