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Moral Superiority

January 10, 2020 (1,710 words)

It’s only natural to feel sorry for those who are less fortunate than we ourselves are. And the natural response is to try and help in whatever way we can.

We just have to be careful not to start feeling superior to the less fortunate in the process. But, as it turns out, cultivating a sense of superiority is something that also comes naturally to most of us.

Though this sort of pride has been around for quite a while, we used to try and avoid it. It seems we stopped trying around the time of the Protestant Reformation, when we began to interpret any improvement in material circumstances as a sign from God we were part of the elect destined for heaven.

This represented an about-face from the previously dominant ethos in which religious observance was usually accompanied by a lukewarm attitude toward worldly affairs, including the pursuit of wealth and possessions, which were viewed as more of a potential impediment to eternal salvation.

The Protestant take on progress and economic gain through hard work was initially bound up with a familiar notion of wanting to use the gifts we have been given and doing something positive with those gifts. A perfectly good notion, I might add. But as with so many things, we tend to confuse the meaning of the original inspiration and veer off in an unhelpful direction.

promoting beggary and enabling laziness…

For instance, according to those early reformed-minded Protestants a donation to the poor or to charity was generally frowned upon, seen as promoting beggary and enabling laziness. If getting ahead meant one had been blessed by God, not working hard to better one’s lot was perceived as an affront to God.

This may be but a distant memory, since the overtly religious underpinnings of the “gospel of prosperity” were dispensed with a long time ago. But the strain of moral superiority that “haves” tend to feel towards the “have-nots” is still with us.

Along these same lines, God may no longer be a designated part of the economic equation, but those who criticize what they see as the poor’s less-than-stellar work ethic still tend to identify as Christian.

Take Marc A. Thiessen (b.1967), a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush, who also writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post on foreign and domestic policy.

On December 31, 2019, one of Mr. Thiessen’s columns was reprinted in my local paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Commenting on the tighter work requirements for food stamps recently implemented by President Trump, Thiessen has this to say:

“This year the number of job openings outnumbered the unemployed workers to fill them by the widest gap ever; wages are rising, and low-wage workers are experiencing the fastest pay increases. Fifty-seven percent of Americans say they are better off financially since Trump took office.

“With unemployment at historic lows, there is no reason more people should not be earning their success through productive work. The rules apply only to able-bodied, childless adults. When we require people to work for public assistance, we not only help meet their material needs but also help them achieve the dignity and pride that come with being a productive member of our community. Work is a blessing, not a punishment.”

Here Marc Thiessen gives us a tidy repacking of the standard conservative-libertarian formula for curing what ails us: trickle-down economics. As if repeating it over-and-over again like a magic incantation will one day make it come true.

Everyone agrees with Mr. Thiessen that work is a blessing and can provide an individual with dignity.

But as a resident fellow at a prestigious Washington, D.C. think tank, making who-knows-how-many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, I would venture to say Mr. Thiessen is completely out of touch with the reality of low-wage workers.

Far too many of the jobs he cites our booming economy as generating are not worth having. They are crummy jobs, with compensation and working conditions that do not provide an individual with a shred of dignity, or a sliver of success.

I keep telling myself the folks at the privately-funded American Enterprise Institute (AEI) mean well, since so many of them are Catholic. But their reflexive invocation of the generic concept of “free enterprise” as THE answer to the persistent and ever-growing problem of economic inequity strikes me as simplistic – one might even say naïve – in the extreme.

But when you are really smart, like all these AEI staffers are, it’s hard to apply the naïveté defense.

Which brings my short discussion to a consideration of the documentary the past president of AEI made in 2019 on his way out the door: The Pursuit, now steaming on Netflix, is “based on the works of Arthur Brooks.” It also stars Mr. Brooks (b.1964) in a series of filmed vignettes that has him ingratiating himself in all sorts of venues.

ignoring the predatory nature of private equity…

His belief in the power of free enterprise is unshakable. The predatory nature of private equity – to name just one factor fatally undermining the competition that’s supposed to keep all economic actors honest – has escaped his notice altogether.

Brooks’ message contrasts sharply with another current Netflix offering, The Two Popes. In that story we have the character of Jorge Bergoglio (b.1936) saying this of his native Argentina, “The bankers wait to be unleashed like tigers; they devour everything.”

To establishment men like Arthur Brooks and Marc Thiessen, the excesses of the financial community need not be brought into the discussion, since “wages are rising, and low-wage workers are experiencing the fastest pay increases.”

One wonders how otherwise reputable people can say and write such things with a straight face. Mr. Brooks’ latest best-seller is entitled Love Your Enemies, so we know beyond a shadow’s doubt his heart is in the right place.

He comes across as a bit of anomaly – a highly principled man who enthusiastically defends a theoretical economic construct, while ignoring the abuses that have accumulated around the actual practice of that construct.

If Arthur Brooks is an anomaly, he is a uniquely Catholic one. And he follows in the footsteps of the late Michael Novak (1933-2017), another AEI scholar and prominent Catholic believer in free enterprise and “democratic capitalism” and the heroic role entrepreneurs play in contributing to the common good.

That such entrepreneurs can make positive contributions to society is certainly true. That they automatically do so just by getting up in the morning and flexing their problem-solving business muscles, as so many conservative-libertarian commentators would have us believe, is far from true.

allowing donors to feel downright altruistic…

It’s worth noting how over the years Arthur Brooks has developed into a fund-raiser extraordinaire. Which no doubt explains how he maintained his leadership position and mega-salary ($1M) at AEI for so long.

I guess if you are successful and want to donate your spare cash to an influential Washington, D.C. think tank that supplies talking points to Republican lawmakers – like how best to argue against raising the minimum wage – giving it to an organization helmed by the empathetic Mr. Brooks, who speaks so eloquently of being compassionate, and of the overriding importance of promoting human dignity, can make the donor feel downright altruistic.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is no easy solution to the ever-growing problem of economic inequity, and I have no quick-silver formulations up my sleeve.

But in trying to figure this out, all the gang at AEI can do is encourage an earnest discussion between big government liberals and small government conservatives, “to see who has the better solutions.” As if that sort of lion sitting down with the lamb thing will get us anywhere.

The optics of such an encounter may be reassuring. But nothing substantial could possibly come of such talks until the “haves” finally stop justifying their more inconsiderate tendencies as “working hard to overcome challenges and achieve success.”

Traveling around the world to demonstrate “socialism doesn’t work,” as Mr. Brooks does so colorfully in The Pursuit, is just a waste of frequent flyer miles. Everyone with a functioning brain already knows socialism doesn’t work.

We don’t really need to see Mr. Brooks basking in the glow of the Dali Lama in Tibet, or chatting with his Spanish in-laws over dinner in Barcelona, to drive the point home.

The only question anyone with a functioning brain should be concerning themselves with is how to inject some accountability – and dare I say it, a sense of morality – into our current version of free enterprise, which has allowed the clever and the advantaged to exert undue influence and run amok.

monopolies put the lie to free enterprise…

Cheerleaders continue to defend the economic status quo as a free and open competition where the provider of a superior product or service wins. With consumers able to choose from an array of quality products that enhance (and never threaten) their well-being, and workers who are paid a living wage and treated with respect.

Free enterprise has always been compromised by the dominate role monopolies play. And since the 1980s it’s also been twisted beyond recognition by an increasingly creative manipulation of financial instruments. These anti-free market forces seek to eliminate competition at every turn.

Which leaves us with the following calculus: If you are a member of the investor class, things couldn’t be better. If you are part of the working class, well, too bad.

This is all very obvious, even to the uninitiated.

It sure would help if smart, well-intentioned and highly compensated people such as the hundreds of scholars over at the American Enterprise Institute would attempt a more incisive economic analysis than the rote recitation of statistics that is their current stock and trade.

Such members of the modern-day elect may not think of themselves as having a morally superior attitude. But their refusal to consider fundamental flaws in the way our capitalist economy has been allowed to function – let’s take the rollback of antitrust legislation in the 1980s as a for instance – does leave the distinct impression they think God is on their side in this debate.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
January 10, 2020

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