On Piketty

The new book by Piketty is causing quite a stir. No I haven’t read it.

But neither have many others, it seems.

Some mistakes: Piketty isn’t a Marxist. However, he is data driven, unlike many others who thrive in mathematical obscurantism.

What conservative critics don’t seem to understand is that Piketty isn’t  advocating a classless society or public ownership of the means of production. Like Marx, his immediate problem is defining how capital works. Any good economist is going to spend some time defining what capital is and where it goes.

What Piketty has shown, according to his interviews and reviewers, is that unregulated markets do not distribute wealth equitably. Capital flows to the top. It does not trickle down. Government has been the engine that protects capital flow for the middle class.

This is not a moral argument. It’s a descriptive one. Except when it comes to the corollary that people who have a lot more money have a lot more political power. In the end, as one libertarian economist sheepishly admitted to me, one cannot have both the sort of markets that create income inequality, and the traditional, republican, community virtues. One must have an oligarchy, or a republic, and capital by and large leans toward the former.

Efficiency and economies of scale still produce hierarchies. But that’s not the primary point. He’s not arguing against income inequality, social stratification or corporate organization. He’s saying something about capital flow. But in some conversations he’s remarked that A CEO making 20-25 times the lowest paid worker will be no less productive than a CEO making 500 times that. He asserts that level of income inequality is simply not necessary for a market to function productively. And this is what has some conservatives hopping mad: it seems that they want it all.

So unregulated wealth flows upward. Now what? Well, I can’t affirm much about policy at this point. Our faith requires realism about wealth and a distinguishing between things and people. It takes a subtle conscience to acknowledge each financial misery, one’s own riches, how one’s own wealth is through grace. That kind of sophistication is rare: the eye of the needle, perhaps.

Our communities, however, can provide spaces where people are invited to be generous with each other. For we think it’s all God’s, and we should not be afraid of loss, not afraid of sharing, resentful of the prosperous, or judgmental of the poor. At least, however, Piketty has called us to pay attention and face the truth: capital flows toward the top, unless our public institutions ensure that it flows freely for all.

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Mistakes about Religion

Occasionally I read an article about religion that is so irritating, I obsess over it. It’s not, say, a writer who looks into the deep abyss and experiences nothing, or complains about an institution’s excesses. I can handle a well-informed atheism, including those that still see the world and its traditions and history as complex and interwoven.

And then I read articles that claim all religion is oppressive to women.

I’m sympathetic to a point. After all, just look at some texts. It seems pretty obvious.

But religion is not the same as the bible, or any specific religious text. The assumption seems to be: just give us a book, and we religious people are happy as pie. I’m sure some of us do wake up and let the book fall open like an oracle and let it tell us what to do. That works until you’re asking what kind of pizza God wants you to order, and it opens to the first chapter of Matthew. Hint: God wants you to order whatever you want, but just remember, back in the day they called Jesus the One True Olive, and asked for the church to be coagulated together like cheese.

What does that mean? I’m just saying get a good bottle of red to wash it down.

So when religious people fling verses at one another like food in a high school cafeteria, one reply could be “why don’t you all just agree on the food?” or “just go to a different restaurant than the religion one.” But they don’t see what’s happening: we’re having a conversation. And as long as we’re not throwing bullets, verses are a lot safer. 

We’re accused of cherry-picking the bible to choose verses that agree with what we already believe. To be honest, that’s a pretty solid accusation. But also of everyone. Hunting for facts to back up a position already held is the most popular way to have an argument except for the few lukewarm souls. Does this mean that Kant was wrong? That there aren’t some universal moral or metaphysical principles? No – it just means we must reside in humility and charity along the way while we get there. Our hope is that in the course of the conversation we’ll remember where our true priorities are.

For most of us who are in religious institutions, scripture has a life. It’s not a rulebook that moves us as if we were marionettes, but the ingredients with which we understand an interior reality. It’s not static – its meaning will change for us over time. That’s why we consider it sacred and canonical.

Is religion oppressive? A better answer is: yes, and no. Religion is a lot of things, and it reflects whatever culture it comes out of.  But if secularism is a good (which it is), then it was not because it arose simply as an alternative to religion, but because it mediated the multiplicity of religious voices. Secularism is weaker when there is only one religious voice out there. 

From my vantage point, I have seen both a decline in women’s rights and a decline in the power of liberal religious institutions. I believe the two are linked: without powerful faithful voices supporting the basic idea that women are human beings, secular feminists will remain on the defensive, especially in the areas of the world where women need the greatest support.

Jesus, Superhero

The people of Israel forget and remember God.

They live when they remember.

The church has its bones.

But it didn’t believe what it said.

Instead, it made rules and pointed at the unclean people,

But it did not say,

God flows through you.

Though you have been spiritually dead,

Sleepwalking,

Like a zombie,

King Jesus has wakened you.

 

It said very little. It was consumed in its causes, rummage sales and dinners.

 

But this does not mean you,

If you are Lazarus,

become a Zombie,

or that Jesus is King Zombie.

Instead, Jesus is like the Hulk.

Or a Transformer.

 

Mary and Martha got mad at Jesus.

He could have saved his friend,

but he wanted to show people he was a superhero.

 

It was a little self indulgent, but the work was done,

and I’m sure Lazarus just needed a bath. Even though that part isn’t in the scriptures.

 

Perhaps Jesus modeled what life could be in church.

We bring our frustrations and anger, and just let them be.

We don’t hide them, but focus them.

We become a space

where others can simply be unburdened.

They don’t have to worry about being contained.

 

We don’t wag our fingers.

We don’t give them a list of rules.

We don’t ask them to be in the vestry or hand over their wallet.

 

Instead we let them be, offer a meal, and

trust that the rock will be moved,

And we’ll feel the living God flow through us again.

 

Perhaps He always is,

But we’re just sleepwalking through it.