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Shooting the Messenger

September 30, 2018 (1,728 words)

They say compromise, the settling of disputes by each side making concessions, is a lost art. Maybe that’s because we have become a schizophrenic people, addicted to an adversarial, split-screen existence in which heroes can do no wrong and villains can do no right.

While conflict is an undeniable component of the human condition, it seems to me the adversarial model as an formal operating system was given bureaucratic legitimacy by modernity, was stamped into certitude by our Founding, and has been responsible, in the eyes of many, for nothing less than the transformation of the United States from a rugged wilderness into the proverbial land of milk and honey.

But this model is schizophrenic at its core. On the one hand we hold that unleashing enlightened self-interest, the constant “looking out for number one,” will provide the freedom necessary for everyone to realize their full potential, while somehow keeping us all honest. On the other hand we expect those very same self-obsessed citizens to be conscious of, and reliably act in the best interest of, the wider community of friends and neighbors and nearby residents.

… the adversarial model has its obvious limitations

The adversarial model has admittedly brought us a long way, materially speaking. But just like every other ideology, it has its obvious limitations. Here in the early decades of the 21st century we are bumping head-on into some of those limitations, as the problem of equitable distribution continues to vex us.

There is an alternative, of course. That would be a cooperative model, such as was employed in the long-ago Middle Ages by the Benedictine monasteries. This alternative operating system helped bring much-needed relief to the poor and down-trodden who found themselves scattered across a barren wasteland after the fall of the Roman Empire, condemned to a hard-scrabble existence.

Through the comprehensive ministrations of dedicated men who voluntarily removed themselves from ordinary living, forsaking wives and families of their own, this one-time wasteland eventually flowered into the continent of Europe, culminating in the glories of what we once unanimously and enthusiastically referred to as Western Civilization.

So the nameless monks of yesteryear were also able to transform a rugged wilderness into a proverbial land of milk and honey, just like we did here in the States several centuries later.

… committed to improving the lot of everyone around them

With one very important difference, it should be noted. Unlike us brash self-centered Americans, those humble monks were committed to improving the lot of everyone around them. Their focus was on eradicating (or at least noticeably reducing) the grinding poverty that was commonplace at the time. They did this by rolling up their sleeves, throwing themselves into manual labor, and utilizing the natural resources at their disposal in a responsible, one might even say “ecological,” manner.

But their physical labors were just a means to an end. Above all else, they were interested in promoting the eternal salvation of souls in the next life. While adversity is said to forge character, overcoming adversity so as to achieve of measure of stability and tranquility is an invaluable aid in the contemplation of higher things.

The monks were keenly aware of this connection. They had a special knack for addressing all aspects of the men, women and children they served – what today’s holistic thinkers describe as the mind-body-spirit continuum. They successfully integrated the complete human person into their approach to life, and into their unique, highly-effective form of evangelization.

… uprooting the sense of “integration”

But the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the Enlightenment put an end to the cooperative model, and in the process effectively uprooted the sense of “integration” that is an important pre-requisite to human fulfillment. What we have been left with is an empty “materialism,” where the only consideration is bodily comfort, and satiating bodily desires.

So now, after a few centuries of unprecedented material advance we nonetheless find ourselves stuck in the mud as a society, spinning our wheels endlessly, cheering our heroes and damning our villains, a modern-day equivalent of the bread and circuses of antiquity.

Liberals and conservatives are both to blame for the highly contentious air we are forced to breath. (Though I admit to harboring a special disdain for conservatives who refuse to even so much as entertain any alternative to our present iron-clad economic formula.) Both liberals and conservatives have trapped themselves, intellectually speaking, because they are equally loath to consider any proscription that reeks of medieval times, or of the Catholic faith.

So in just the latest example of not being able to see the forest for the trees, we are unable to perceive that in order to unstick ourselves and make serious strides toward achieving true economic justice we must set aside the adversarial, either/or, liberal/conservative approach to problem-solving.

… as exemplified by our two leading newspapers

That approach is exemplified by two of our leading daily newspapers. The Wall Street Journal proudly tells us the economy is booming: the stock market is surging, corporate profits are at an all-time high, and unemployment is at a corresponding all-time low.

The New York Times, on the other hand, offers dire reports of rampant underemployment, wages and benefits that have been stagnant for decades, and details how the gap between CEO compensation and the average line worker that has continued to increase over those same decades has now shot up exponentially just since the financial collapse of 2008.

Each newspaper regularly captures an element of the truth in its reporting. Neither publication is unassailably right, or utterly wrong. (Though my sympathies do lie a bit more naturally in this regard – and this regard only – with the NYT, seeing as the avid readership of the WSJ tends to occupy the catbird seat, financially-speaking.)

But we are conditioned to accept the limited view of reality presented by one side or the other. We praise our favorite paper, and refuse to even look at that other rag. What the world really needs is for these two editorial boards – each consisting of smart and experienced people – to put their respective heads together, and cooperate on a truly bi-partisan analysis and evaluation of our multi-faceted economic tableau.

… the Business Roundtable does an about-face

On August 15, Senator Elizabeth Warren ventured into the lion’s den of The Wall Street Journal to explain that “Companies Shouldn’t Only Be Accountable to Shareholders.” Her short op-ed piece points out how the Business Roundtable, an organization which represents large U.S. corporations, dramatically changed its tune between 1981 and 1997 when it comes to outlining the responsibilities and objectives of its member companies:

“(Corporations) have a responsibility, first of all, to make available to the public quality goods and services at fair prices, thereby earning a profit that attracts investment to continue and enhance the enterprise, provide jobs, and build the economy.”

“…(T)he principle objective of a business enterprise is to generate economic returns to its owners.”

In describing “The Accountable Capitalism Act” she is introducing in Congress, Senator Warren uses her short WSJ op-ed to touch on a few key examples of how the everyday functioning of the economy has fundamentally changed over the course of the past thirty years.

… a dramatic change in philosophy over the last thirty years

Among those examples is the way a “shareholder value maximization” ideology has taken hold in boardrooms across the country, and around the world. Meanwhile wages for the workers who helped produce these record returns have stagnated, even though their productivity has continued to rise.

As Senator Warren so succinctly puts it, “Workers aren’t getting what they’ve earned.” One can almost hear echoes of today’s second reading at Mass:

“Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and consume you like fire. You have hoarded treasure in the last days. The wages that you held back from the workers who harvested your fields are shouting out against you”… (James 5:4)

… Senator Warren’s broad outline is hard to dispute

The picture Senator Warren paints of economic life over the last thirty years can hardly be debated, even if the specifics of her proposed legislation to address the situation could no doubt benefit from careful review and further input. Yet her critics are not interested in taking up a worthy cause and improving on the initial proposal. They are only interested in shooting the messenger.

Nothing is more frustrating to me at this point in my life than to hear every single thoughtful and detailed criticism of unfettered capitalism rebuffed by conservatives with the simplistic notion that we must avoid the slippery slope of socialism.

And in Senator Warren’s case, religious or social conservatives should not allow her avowed support of reproductive choice and marriage equality to disqualify her from serious consideration when it comes to being able to accurately diagnose some of our most basic economic woes.

To say that none of us is perfect is more than a glib observation, or an attempt at being cute. It’s a fact of life. In recognition of this disquieting reality, we must open ourselves to the possibility that good ideas can come from anywhere. By the same token, coming up with a stunningly good idea in one field of endeavor does not in any way guarantee that your next idea in another field of endeavor will not turn out to be a real stinker.

… backing off the conservatives belief that “all is well“

Honestly people, at this late date can we all agree that our current version of no-holds-barred, winner-take-all capitalism could benefit from a little fine-tuning, so as to address the obvious and growing problem of unequitable distribution?

(And just to be clear, this has nothing whatsoever to do with any sort of push for “equal outcomes.”)

And can we also all agree that no sane, rational person could possibly be in favor of socialism? The challenge we face is how to make capitalism work better for those who are not clever or advantaged. The conversation should move on from there.

But in order to move on we must first ask our conservatives friends to stop insisting that everything is fine with their dynamic economic engine, just the way it is.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
September 30, 2018

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