Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

01/23/2009 (12:31 pm)

Consumerism and Politics

I’ve been teaching in a religious home group about wealth and prosperity, how they differ and how Christianity regards them. The subject has been on my mind for a while; I can’t say why. However, given that it’s likely that America’s historic level of wealth is about to recede into fond memory, it would do well for us all to examine our attitudes toward wealth, and to relax our grasp on material goods. President Obama thinks America’s wealth is a constant, and that it can be redistributed to produce “justice.” What he’s about to learn — if he has the wit and character to grow from the inevitable failure, which I doubt — is that wealth is a function of liberty and incentives, and that when you attempt to force even distribution, what you get is vastly reduced wealth for all. As he, and we, get reminded of this, we’d better learn to obtain our happiness from non-material things, ’cause the material things have made themselves wings, and are poised to fly away.

It’s become vogue to speak of capitalism as “greed,” and to denounce American consumerism in political terms. I agree that American consumerism really is something at least partly wicked; however, while the Democratic party has argued that this is a result of Republican policies and has attempted to make us all hate corporations, I don’t believe consumerism is a political problem at all.

Consumerism really is about the love of money, about vanity and self-promotion, which are dangers all rich people face (and lets face it, in terms of world income, nearly every one of us in the US is wealthy.) A prison minister I used to know named Jim Newsome once observed, “All the benefits of wealth are temporal, and all the dangers of wealth are eternal.” It’s not the case that wealth is evil; it is the case, however, that it takes a much more righteous character to manage wealth and remain holy than it does to live in poverty and remain holy. “For 100 men who can withstand poverty,” wrote Carlisle, “there is one who can manage prosperity.” This is why the author of the Proverbs prayed to the Almighty, “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food I need.” (see Prov 30:7-9)

Various brands of modern Marxism have replaced references to “borgeoisie” in their dialectic with references to “evil corporations. ” Somehow, though, these arguments always end with a call to increase the power of government. That’s no solution; if corporations are driven by greed for money (they’re not, really, or at least, not entirely,) governments are even more driven by greed for power. How does it address the problem to remove power from the lesser sinner and hand it to the greater one?

We have to resist this sort of manipulation by politicians with ulterior motives, and recognize that the cure to consumerism has nothing to do with transferring power from corporations to governments, but everything to do with increasing the ability of individuals to do the right things with their wealth. This is not a problem for political parties to solve, but a problem for the Church to address through consistent charity, financial responsibility, self-policing of the wealthiest among us, and prophetic denunciation of rank consumerism. “The American dream” began as every man’s liberty to serve God according to his own conscience; it has morphed into a craving by every man to become a millionaire. This is evil. The Church cannot sign onto that quest; we must be in a position to speak against it, which means we have to repent of doing it ourselves, and we have to understand what we ought to be pursuing instead. It’s one thing to obtain wealth while serving others faithfully; it’s another to pursue wealth for its own sake.

Credit for the clip art goes to Barry’s Clipart Server.

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January 24, 2009 @ 10:06 am #

I’m going to take a shot at this, because I thought it was incorrect on several levels and 24 Hs. later I’m still interested. So kindly bear with me and don’t take offense.

First, there is what I call ‘strategic advertising’. It’s easier to talk about results than it is to define it or suggest causality, but somehow Corporations and business have been demonized to an extent unheard of, even going back to the 20s and 30s when Communism/Socialism was an up and coming viable system. It’s working for trial lawyers, who have juries in the palms of their hands before they even start the trial, and liberal politicians, who excoriate and tax corporations ruthlessly (while succumbing to their lobbying) as part of their SOP. There is an anti business mindset in America that didn’t come out of thin air. Maybe it is human nature – the sin of envy. But it is certainly actively channeled somehow, and it resonates very successfully.

And nothing is wrong with acquiring wealth. Kindly re – read your Adam Smith. People go to Church because they consider it in their best interest. People seek wealth because it is the only way for most of us to acquire power, which is really what people want (more later). Most of that money the successful wealth – seekers get ends up in some sort of investment, which is capital. Capital transforms into tools, etc. that increase wealth, hence capital, in an endless circle that raises all boats. There are still farmers who plow their fields in Mexico with horses (I’ve seen them). I’ll bet they would like a loan to buy a tractor if they could. They do not farm as they do because they are dumb or ‘Green’, the do it because they are poor – i.e. they lack capital. And the capital for that loan can and most likely will come from an ‘evil’ capitalist. I’ll skip the part about Gov’t loans – check out Cuba and North Korea for that part. The more wealth, the more capital the better. The fraction of the money that the wealthy do not invest, they spend. But you can only blow so much. The fancy house, the expensive car, the jet – setting all provide jobs. Trickle down is meant as a put – down, but it works. Ask the folks in the home building trades, the tourism industry, the auto industry – it ain’t trickling down much now and it hurts.

Back to the money/power dichotomy. If wealth was the be – all and end – all of existence, then why are there so many really rich folks so unhappy? I know a fair number of ‘Trust babies’ that are really quite unhappy. The happy wealthy people are doing stuff that makes them happy. Their wealth enables this. People really just want to do what they think is fun and interesting. But too many people equate their un – fun life with having no money. And they work hard, get the money and still discover life is un – fun. Money just increases one’s options for fun.
But what is fun? – I mean really lasting fun? Where fun blends into happiness.

And that is where you quite correctly start thinking about Church. At least I do. I hope the Weingarts give me an excuse to continue this diatribe. When you become a finalist for best conservative blog, that’s what you get – ‘ole cottus. Sorry

January 24, 2009 @ 9:08 pm #


Welcome, glad to have you.

We’re not as far apart as you seem to think.

First of all, there’s very little question where the anti-corporate mindset came from. It was deliberately introduced by leftists through public entertainment. Review TV and film for the last 40 years, and pay attention to how ordinary business is portrayed in those. Large corporations are uniformly cast as villains, and not just villains, but utterly corrupt, completely captive to greed, wholeheartedly evil, perfectly willing to commit murder, destroy the planet, and steal your dog if it helps them earn just one more year’s profit. Tens of thousands of examples, no exaggeration. Zero counter-examples of positive corporate representation. The de-educated populace has come to believe the negative image of big business, without a single argument being made. It’s all in the media presentation. This was impossible in the 30s because the entertainment media barely existed compared to today.

Second, there’s nothing wrong with obtaining wealth, but a great deal wrong with lusting after it. The modern quest for toys and the ability to afford them has little to do with Adam Smith, and produces nothing of real value. It’s an empty pursuit, and invariably fails to satisfy. Likewise, the quest for wealth as an end in itself that so frequently gets sold by sales experts and multi-level marketeers.

By contrast, the wealth that comes as a byproduct of and reward for service often rests easily on the recipient, and harms nothing. This was the mindset of prior generations in America. They more or less thought of wealth as a reward for doing good. Morality tales from the 20s and earlier had this as a common theme. Think of Dickens tales like Martin Chuzzlewit or Great Expectations, or Horatio Alger stories, or read this old post about wealth and ingenuity. Work hard, serve your fellow-man, do what is right, and wealth will come to you. That was the pitch, and it was a lot healthier than today’s class warfare.

You might want to review some of my previous thoughts about wealth and capitalism, here.

Again, welcome.

January 25, 2009 @ 4:11 pm #

Enjoy your blog, so I’ve given you an award. It’s not a big deal, but I thought you should know I enjoy what you two do!


(Author notes: Annie, muchas gracias.)

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