Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Wealth Gap

A couple of weeks back I posted about an radio broadcast I heard by Dr. Stephen Bezruschka. I haven't been able to get some of his ideas out of my head, but the last comment on the post, by Christie, really got me thinking. Then, today, I read this story about Warren Buffet, whom I have enormous respect for. I think that he and Bill and Melinda Gates have done as much for Africa as the rest of our country combined. Anyway, my recent thoughts and the article I read today have prompted this post.

Years ago President Benson gave a very (now) famous quote about howChrist takes the slums out of the people and then the people take themselves out of the slums. This quote was given in a First Presidency message in the 1989 Ensign. I have always really loved this idea. I think this is why Bezrushka's essays/broadcasts are so appealling to me. For all of his policy arguments, underneath it all he emphasized that, as Americans in particular, we have gotten so good at trying to accumulate wealth that we have completely forgotten one another. As I listened/read to more of Dr. Bezruchka's work, what he is saying at the heart of it is that many social ills are effectively a product of our poor treatment of others and the breakdown of the family. He says that we need to strive more to love others and desire true equality. He follows up by saying that true equality can only happen if young children are given all the love and the support they need by a caregiver who is consistent and is available to them later in life.

So, in a philisophical sense, his ideas are not too far from President Benson's. They are both supporting the idea that true social change needs to take place in the heart and the mind before it can be affected on a grand scale.

The difference, of course, is that President Benson is right when he says that only Christ can affect this change in our hearts for good. Dr. Bezruchka advocates government intervention. I don't think the good doctor is suggesting any kind of an anarchist overthrow, but I think he wants people to change their mindset about the way they vote. Now he isn't necessarily saying we have to give all we have to the government (though he cites historically much higher taxes as a time in our country when healthcare wasn't so complicated and the division of assets was more equitable), but he is saying that if the government reallocated resources to be good for children--as much as a year paid time off for one or both parents of new babies, schools, pre-natal care and education for single mothers, etc. . . then we wouldn't spend so much on the other end--health care (especially mental health), prisons, welfare, etc. Because, he maintains, the foundation for our lives is so fundamentally laid in those years before we ever attend school, that there are very few who break the cycle of poverty and violence and lack of nurturing. These things lead to all kinds of health issues . . . and so on.

I'm not suggesting expensive government programs to take care of all of its citizens. Really. Our government shows, generation after generation, that few government programs are succesful at accomplishing what they were designed to do. But there are scriputral lessons from history that are illustrative here. Let's look at the hallmarks of a Zion Society. All things in common. No poor among them. And while I'm not anxious for the government to be big brother (too many countries have shown the ineffectiveness of THATsocial policy), we do need to remember that one day the Lord will expect us to cheerfully consecrate all we have to the church and then use our talents to bless others. Isn't the best government really a socialist theocracy? This is so the opposite of capitalist democracy that it isn't even funny.

I read an article once put out by FARMS written by Hugh Nibley some years back. He was talking about lessons learned from the Book of Mormon, even after forty years of the initial Book of Mormon class he taught at BYU. I'm going to quote it liberally here,

"Less than a month ago I gave students in the Book of Mormon class the choice of writing a term paper on either a religious or economic theme. Ninety-four percent of the class chose the theme, "Discuss the problem of riches in the Book of Mormon. " Almost every scholar began by evoking the sacred cliche; there is nothing wrong with wealth itself; wealth as such is good. It is only how you use it that may be bad. They insisted that a free market was the perfect and flawless order of things, the ordained sanction of free agency. It is only when the system is abused that things go wrong and that in itself proves that it is good in itself.

"How do we escape abuses . . . In the Book of Mormon, the destructive power of wealth is pervasive and inespacable, since, as Helaman discovered, we can always count on humanity to do foolish things. The question is, what economic system would suit such people? The Book of Mormon answer is clear; None that they could devise. . . have we any assurance that we, whom the book is designed to warn against that very folly, are doing any better? Christ gave them the economic system by which they lived happily for a far longer peroid than any of the brief boom-cycles enjoyed by the Nephites. And we know what he taught; should that not suffice? Should not 4th Nephi put an end to all argument and sophistry? If we want answers, here they are. Yet, strangely, for Momons this is off limits and out of bounds--so long ago and far away. But the purpose of the Book of Mormon is to make all things present to us; it has been edited to delete anything not relevant to our condition. It makes no difference where or in which dispensation we live, all are tested equally. And now the Book of Mormon is holding up the mirror up to our ugliness--no wonder we look the other way as it pleads with us, "O be wise! What more can [we]say?'

"The two pasages which the student choose to score their point are anything but a brief for riches if we read them with care. They were highly favored by the class because out of more than sixty statments on the seeking of wealth in the Book of Mormon, there are virtually the only ones that can be interpreted as giving countenance to the profit motive. The first of these is in Jacob 2:18-19: 'But before yeseek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ, ye shall obtain riches if ye seek them. 'That is great favorite.
"It is standard practice to stop there and leave it at that, but even if we go no further, the plain lesson of this injunction is to seek the kingom of God first of all. And how do we build up the kingdom of God and establish Zion? By obeserving and keeping the law of consecration. What does that mean? The preceding verse, routinely overlooked, explains: 'Think of your brethren like unto yourselves,and be familar with all and free with our substance that they may be rich like unto you.' That looks suspiciously like equalizing thewealth--this is with reference to 'substance'; you cannot get out of it by saying you will make them 'spiritually rich.' We give to the poor enough to make us feel virtuous and keep them on the the leash, but the order here is for a basic redistrubition of wealth . . . ."

Okay, that is enough, and Nibley was certainly no prophet or even general authority, but his scholarship raises some interesting questions. He goes on at length about equality and the scriptural ideas espoused in the Lord's prayer ('thy kingdom come . . .') and cancellation of debt, one man not 'possessing' above another, not opressing the hireling in his wages, etc. He is critical of the students' citing of wealthy Mormons who have made large donations. Why? Because don't they have their reward when their giving is public? And have they given away so much that they are equal? Again, I'm not saying that Dr. Bezrushka necessarily has it all figured out, but I don't know if the modern manifestation of the "American Dream" necessarily fits in perfectly with God's plan either. It is easy to feel poor and desirous to have more and more when we live in such a consumer driven society. Maybe what Nibley and Benson and Bezrushka are saying is impossible, at least before the Savior comes, a Utopia out of step with the level our society has fallen to, but how can we give up? Maybe it isn't just enough to be good to our own families or neighborhoods . . . I don't know anymore.

I had a friend once whose political ideas differed widely from mine. (Okay, I've had MANY friends like this, but I'm thinking of a particular incident.) She said that if the government would give more money back the people, then she would be able to be freer with her substance in giving to the poor. While that may have been true for her, she had a very good heart, what about the rest of us? I don't know if I would. Like most families out there, I feel like we are working really hard to make ends meet, and not always succeeding. As two income families ravenously try to accumulate more of the world's goods, home prices skyrocket and it becomes harder and harder to stay at home and afford a home in a neighborhood where your kids are safe. To me, more money in my pocket would mean less debt. It wouldn't mean an extra handout to the homeless shelter or more fast offering or checks to the humanitarian fund or United Way.

And so, if citizens have failed one another, perhaps government does have a role here? Just this week a very telling thing happened in our nation. President Bush vetoed the first bill of his administration, though it passed Congress with more than just Democratic support. It was a Health and Human Services funding bill aimed primarily at healthcare for poor Americans, particularly children. He called the bill, with is 4.5 billion dollar pricetag, "wasteful." The same day, his part was pushing a 40 billion plus spending bill for the Pentagon for 2008.

When we cease to care for the poorest and most downtrodden among us, no amount of money or weapons or homage to gods of stone and steel can save us.


Maggie said...

That was really well put. I've been thinking a lot about this lately and you put a different perspective on it. Thanks.

Desmama said...

I agree with Maggie. I, too, have heard the reasoning that "if the government would give me more money back, then I'd give." It makes a stink in my nostrils.

You've given me lots to think about and ponder. And don't even get me started on the veto of CHIP.

FoxyJ said...

Even though we've qualified for Medicaid for our entire marriage, we used insurance from my husband's job for a few years. Between paying the premiums plus the deductible and other out-of-pocket stuff we ended up spending about 20 percent of our income on medical expenses one year. S-Boogie was in the hospital twice, but it still was not really an unreasonable year for a young family. After that we decided that we'd rather let them help us out with medical expenses and free up some of our money for other things like food and getting out of debt and stuff like that. I'm definitely more on the "government intervention" side of things, especially when it comes to health care.

You should read Approaching Zion by Hugh Nibley. It's long but quite good.

Thoroughly Mormon Millie said...

Welfare the way the government does it doesn't help "welfare people." It provides for their physical needs, but it doesn't help them. Neither would universal health care. It would only help their sense of entitlement. I've been in the uninsured boat before, and it is absolutely not easy and not fair, but you get through it and you eventually (hopefully) pay your bills and life goes on.

The government does enough now - some would even say "too much." I feel bad for mothers whose husbands abandon them (notice I said "husbands" and not "baby daddies"), the widows, the disabled, and the others Christ always mentioned, and we should absolutely be more helpful to them. I like to think I would, if I had more in my bank account. We're struggling on my husband's income, but my staying home was a choice, as was our having five children and my husband's public service occupation which will never make us rich.

So many of life's hardships boil down to choices, good or bad. That's what I hear when I read President Benson's words. When we teach people there's a better way of life, they'll hopefully respond and make something better of their lives and the lives of future generations. This has been true of my family.

Universal health care, to me, smacks of the government trying once again to limit our free agency.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

I'm not necessarily advocating universal health care. It is not without its problems, and there are some very interesting free market ideas on health care that could be useful solutions in the type of economy we have. And I really like what Mormon Millie says about choices. But what about young kids? Should they bear the brunt of their parents' bad choices? But how do you help the kids without perpetrating the cycle?

My brother did his psych rotation for med school at children's hospital in Washington DC. He has shared very little of his experiences there, but I know he will have a hard time forgetting what he saw. Children, who, by the age of eight (accountability) who are so distressed mentally between abuse of all kinds and horrors they have witnessed that there is very little hope for them to ever be put right. These children will grow up to inhabit prisons and mental institutions. While it is very easy to sit from our perspective and say there is "always a choice," those words are cheap to a child who after years of physical abuse witnesses his father kill his mother in a fit of rage one night. Add to that the limits on his intelligence from the drugs and alcohol his mother consumed during pregnancy. Society will take care of this person one way or the other, and I'd rather see the money poured into the front end than the back end.

The neighborhood two blocks north of the Capitol Building in Washington DC is one of the most violent in the entire country. Deosn't that say something about years of mistakes made by politicians of both parties? And since we elected them, doesn't that say something about the values of our society as a whole?

I don't know what the answers are.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Sorry. Perpetuating the cycle.

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

I think it's interesting that Dr. Bezrushka emphasizes the importance of a loving and consistent caregiver (e.g. a stay-home mom) for a child's healthy development, and yet our society is exerting more and more pressure on moms to work.

There's cultural pressure in the frequent message that you must have a career to make something of your life, but there's also plenty of economic pressure (which is arguably cultural as well). My husband is a grad student, and we're finding that loans and assistantships only cover the living expenses for one person, regardless of whether a student is married or has children. The assumption is that either students will put off marriage, or their spouses will work. You also make the interesting point that homes are increasingly difficult to afford because so many are purchased with dual incomes. I hadn't thought about that before.

I suppose this is just one more instance where you have to do what you believe is right, then go forward with faith that the Lord will help you make it happen.

Caitlin said...

I read your post off of a link from Kimberly and I was really impressed. Nibley's quote on keeping the poor on a leash was a stark representation of our way of thinking as a society. It is frustrating to know that no matter what amount of money or services we throw at people, outside influences and resources will not change people. Only when Christ is let into one's heart is change successful and we can't make people choose it. I guess that is the blessing/curse of free agency. I think you illustrated that beautifully in your post.

As a stay-at-home mom whose husband is self-employed, health care is a huge issue to us as well. Having a chronically ill daughter, I have come to the reality that insurance companies are extremely corrupt. I am not sure what socialized medicine will do for the quality of care in this country, but looking at the UK's model, it isn't pretty. As you and Kimberly pointed out, the world is an expensive place and only growing more so with each passing year. Thank you for putting a gospel perspective on our consumer society.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

One of my biggest insurance company complaints is that they are publicly traded to raise huge amounts of capital for underwriting claims. So, really, insurance companies are not primarily interested in helping sick people, they are interested in making money for their shareholders. Profiting from illness just doesn't sit right with me.

I read an article recently arguing for some kind of standardized health care, in which the author could not fathom why big corporations (generally voting Republican) were so against the idea. After all, it is expensive health insurance that is making it harder and harder to hire American employees. It isn't just blue collar jobs that are being outsourced these days. And many companies are setting up business overseas because they can put all their resources into attractive salaries instead of pensions, 401Ks or health insurance. Some form of standardized health care might make a stronger American middle class.

Every social scientist always seems to come back to exactly the same argument, though. If we want a stronger, healthier society then we must have stronger, healthier homes. Hm . . . where have we heard this message before? said...

Beautiful... So there are other people who agree with most of my political ideas.

Our discussion in my government class was on this topic this week - It literally hurt my heart to read some people's opinions on the matter. A lot of people have absolutely no compassion - it made me want to cry.

Just for the record - I don't think loving and consistent care giver means stay at home mom - I think it means loving and consistent caregiver. When I was growing up the one that was more loving and consistent was the one that went to work - not the one who stayed at home.

Thoroughly Mormon Millie said...

Kimberly, thank you. That households will have two incomes is definitely assumed, causing higher prices on everything from groceries to houses. If people can pay more, why shouldn't companies charge more?

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Great discussion. Too much to say, so I'll blog later in the week to follow up.

Arugula Queen said...

It is not without compassion when I say that I'm glad this bill got defeated. We simply don't need more gross government excess to be mismanaged and corrupted while taking money directly from the pockets of working class people. Thats how these things always shake down too. Illegal immigrants and those already on the welfare rolls will benefit while those busting their butt on a daily basis to feed their families like I am will see no relief and our children will continue to be denied the health care simply because we do work too hard. I loathe socialism ideals and that is exactly what that bill represents. Let's tax those who have drive and initiative to fork over to others who don't.

Paying 10% tithing every month has completely obliterated whatever middle class guilt I used to feel and I prefer to funnel my money into local humanitarian charities with a proven track record than a government entity. In my estimation this attitude of giving people more, more, more for nothing is what perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

Arugula Queen said...

Hola Millie! You dual-income household hater. :) Sometimes we gotta do what we gotta do to keep our families in the luxurious life of Hamburger Helper and Dollar Store shopping that they've come to expect.

Thoroughly Mormon Millie said...

"I don't know why they call it Hamburger Helper... it tastes just fine on its own."

Hey AQ! Yes, that's me, I hate people who have two incomes. Heaven help me, the day I join the working class and fund my children's missions and college educations and weddings.

Unless they all start shacking up and end up on welfare. Then they're not getting jack squat from me.

Ashlee said...

Well, hello, Nan. I can tell I'm going to have a lot of fun with some of your political posts. ;) The bill Bush vetoed was an attempt to widen the opening towards universal healthcare a.k.a. socialized medicine. The poorest children are already covered under current programs. This particular legislation expanded the definition of "child" to age 25 and "poor" to $80,000. Puh-lease. President Kimball said, "We cannot be too often reminded that Church welfare assistance is spiritual at heart and that these spiritual roots would wither if we ever permitted anything like the philosophy of the dole to enter into our Welfare Services ministrations...The world's way deepens the individual's dependency on welfare programs and tends to make him demand more rather than encouraging him to return to economic independence." ANYWAY...I could go on and on. It's [capitalism] something I feel very strongly about. It's not a perfect system, but in a fallen world, it's an inspired one. Thanks for getting the juices flowing in this tired mom's veins. :)

Anonymous said...

Christ Said, when asked about the poor. "The Poor Will Always be With Us".

What do you think that means? Does Obama and Sen. Bidden know something we don't?