Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wanting to Start a Conversation

So what do you all think about the accumulation of wealth? Hugh Nibley and C.S. Lewis have much to say on the topic that is very thought-provoking. However, neither of these men were actually leaders in any organized church, just very deep thinkers.

Obviously my thoughts are coming from the recent release of Mr. Romney's tax statements, and the ironic reaction to it from within the Republican Party establishment. It seems that Gingrich won in South Carolina on the strength of arguments that Mitt Romney must, by virtue of his vast wealth and low tax rate, be out of touch with regular folks. So out of touch, in fact, that there is really no way for him to ever be in touch. That by using the system to become a 1%er he is somehow unfit to lead the ninety and nine. The irony in all of this is that Mr. Romney is the embodiment of every policy the Republicans have spent the last 30 years pushing with increasing success. He is a practicing Christian who gives generously to his church (reinforcing the belief that the government shouldn't do what charities should); his income is primarily invested so that is taxes are low and his money is used ostensibly to create jobs; he started his own company; he was the beneficiary of inherited money; he is well-educated . . . . the list goes on and on. In fact, if the Republicans could, in a secret lab somewhere, create the perfect example of what-conservative-policies-can-do-for-a-person, Mittens Romney would come out on the other side. (A recent poll says that 2% of Americans think his name is actually Mittens, though Mitt is actually his complete middle name.)

And yet, his own party is attacking him as being too wealthy. As a non-Republican, I find this all very hard to understand. If the purpose of conservative policy is to create an America that creates men like Mr. Romney, then what is the problem?

At the end of the day, are we, with our upstart American attitudes, still basically distrusting of those who have a lot of this world's goods? Even if we laughed at and scorned the Occupiers and their 99% mantra, do we really believe that the 1% has way too much power, influence, opportunity, leisure, and, quite frankly, stuff.

I'm not sure how I feel. I don't begrudge anybody the opportunity to work hard and make something of themselves. In fact, the main reason I align my thinking more closely with the Democratic party is that I believe its basic platform is an attempt to correct the imbalances of birth through programs that create opportunity. (And yes, I fully acknowledge that this approach also carries its own set of un-intended consequences, it just sits easier on my conscience than a fend-for-yourself approach.) I guess I just don't see, to use a current and famous example, how someone like Mr. Romney who has basically coasted on his investments the last several years and exorbitant speaking fees, can really be considered as more worthwhile in our society than an awesome English teacher who runs a painting business on the side just to feed his kids. Or a woman of color who works shift work at two 30 hour a week jobs only to be denied insurance by each because she only works "part-time." Or a pipe fitter who works in the sweat and mud every day not knowing if there will be more work next month. Or a wife and mom who spends years working and sacrificing for her kids and never sees a paycheck. Or a Hispanic laborer living on a shoestring in order to send money to his aging mother in Mexico, all the time knowing he might be stopped at a moment's notice to prove his right to be in this land of opportunity.

At what point does wealth become so extreme that the notion of "earning it" is preposterous? At what point do we view the things we have accumulated and accept that it is just too much? If we believe the Creator endowed men to be equal, then what exactly does that mean when the circumstances of birth are so clearly unequal? What role do we play in helping to equalize people? Do we play any role at all?

What are your thoughts on the Christian's accumulation of wealth?


heidikins said...

Two things:

1. "It seems that Gingrich won in South Carolina on the strength of arguments that Mitt Romney must, by virtue of his vast wealth and low tax rate, be out of touch with regular folks. So out of touch, in fact, that there is really no way for him to ever be in touch." But Gingrich, who thinks we should colonize the moon, is the epitome of "in touch." Sigh.

2. Anyone who has running water and two pairs of shoes is richer than 97% of the world. So really, what's the difference of being in the top 3% vs. the top 1%. I wish I knew some stat for the US on this, but sadly, I don't.

In conclusion: Gingrich is a moron, Romney is rich but that doesn't make him a bad person or a bad leader, it just makes him a beneficiary of remarkable luck and the utilizer* of remarkable brains.

*I know utilizer isn't a word.


AmyJane said...

I love when you write about the stuff that I think about when I can't sleep at night. I am all kinds of conflicted about this issue. Am very interested int the comments you will get here!

Scully said...

I think that when wealth accumulation is the goal, then priorities are in need of adjustment. If wealth accumulation happens while pursuing a passion or creating something to benefit the world it is a by-product. When the accumulation or amassing of wealth becomes the deciding factor or the sole reason for doing something, then priorities need to be examined. As far as wealth accumulation as a Christian goes, I feel it is where your heart is. If you heart is in the right place, your wealth accumulation won't be an issue because you are using it to take care of others. It won't necessarily be accumulating at alarming rates because it is being used.

Sidenote: I know someone who worked with Romney when he was involved with the 2002 Olympic Committee. He had a habit of referring to some as "members of ordinary means" when they couldn't attend some of the committee functions due to cost. So while the Republican accusations are absurd in light of their party platform, they might not be wrong.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Too much Romney here. I meant him to be more of an example. Heidikins point is excellent. If we see our neighbor as ANYone in need, then what is our obligation to the world as a whole when we have so much? I think my point here was not to ask what Romney's obligation is, but my own?

Cathy said...

My comment may not address the questions you posed directly. Sorry :)

I too have issues with the Republican "fend-for-yourself" attitude, and disdain for social programs. My mom married at 17 to escape a bad situation and got herself into a worse one, choosing to give birth to 7 kids with an abusive husband. I know lots of people who would jump all over her choices in their haste to condemn them, and perhaps justly so. But here's what happened: she divorced my father. She used social programs, like welfare and financial aid, to go back to school, and completed her JD (juris doctor) degree while parenting 7 kids. She remarried and step-parented 3 more, and followed inspiration and gave birth to a final 2 kids, even though it wrecked her health. Because of her strength, but also because she had support from social programs, she has 12 fairly well-adjusted kids who are contributing members of society, most of us with college educations and good jobs and happy marriages.
Is this a typical outcome from a mom on welfare? Nope. She had some extra advantages: brains, motivation, support from family and from our religious congregation. She also had a lot of luck. For example, if her health had been wrecked sooner, it is probable that nothing else could have made a difference quickly enough for her to haul herself out of poverty, though her example and parenting still might have sufficed for myself and my siblings as motivation to move out of poverty.

What those who criticize social programs and advocate the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality often fail to realize is that so much is affected by luck, health, and circumstance. Choices matter too, but the rich and middle class are not exempt from making poor choices. They just have a cushion of protection--something that is often recognized in the scriptures and reflected by less reliance on the Lord. The poor know they depend on him each day for their survival; the richer folks can maintain the illusion of self-sufficiency and insulation from the negative cost of their choices.

I feel a great need to support social programs because I recognize how atypical our family's progress has been. Without our natural abilities, without the sort of familial support and church support we had, without the luck/divine intervention that gave opportunities, we wouldn't be where we are now. And those who are still back where I grew up--living in public housing and relying on welfare and food stamps--are no less worthy or worthwhile than my family just because they are still there. I do not like the LDS tendency to conflate prosperity with goodness. It is too much like the Calvinism that is historically part of the U S mentality and too little like the philosophy reflected in the Book of Mormon where prosperity almost inevitably brings pride (rebellion against God). It seems that if we applied the scriptures more directly, we'd have a greater appreciation for folks who are struggling monetarily, and not draw so many caricatures of the poor as lazy, drug-ridden, disease-ridden, lacking in initiative, etc. Remember "blessed are the poor in spirit", and Alma's discussion of how poverty often leads to humility (reliance on the Lord), and please, if you have judged the poor, remember that subjecting any group to a blanket judgment will pass unrighteous and untrue judgment on a significant portion of that group.

Cathy said...

And STM, to directly answer your question: I think our obligation is to not be insulated from the needs of others. I am so impressed by Moroni's letter to Pahoran (see Alma ch.60), and the accusation he levels of Pahoran and others being so comfortable on their thrones that they forget the suffering of others. I think each of us needs to seek inspiration and choose a way to get off our thrones, mingle with people who are different from us, have our illusions and misconceptions and safety shattered, and serve and get to work to help them. But this is not safe or comfortable, and therefore it is very hard to do.

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

You can do wondrous good with money. Temples are built with it, humanitarian aid items are bought and shipped with it, and the PEF Fund uses it to change lives for the better. That said, I'm rather conflicted about my own relationship with it.

On the one hand, we need money to survive, and it takes money to pay for good things like piano lessons, putting kids through college, attending family reunions, and hopefully one day retiring and serving senior missions. What's more, there are half a dozen good causes I'd love to contribute more to.

There's nothing wrong with acquiring money to do good, and you have to earn and manage money to keep your family above water, but I worry that the harder I work at accumulating money the more my heart will be set it and the stuff it can buy. I like contributing to charities, but I also like buying new toys and going to restaurants. I want to be wealthy, but I don't want to be materialistic (actually, most millionaires in this country are average-looking people who live modestly and save a lot of pennies; by contrast, many people who look like millionaires have little actual wealth because they spend it all looking and acting rich).

As for the Republicans criticizing Romney for applying their principles, many politicians will criticize anyone about anything if it gets them elected. Romney probably does have a hard time relating to Joe Plumber, but that doesn't mean he'd be a bad leader, and frankly I don't think any of the other Republican candidates could relate to Joe any better.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Cathy! Wow. What an amazing self-revelation. I would say that your mother, and by extension your remarkable family, is the TRUE American success story. I too have a mother who came from terrible poverty and dysfunction. Not all of her siblings made it out; and you are right, some of it was just the circumstance of her birth. She was a little smarter; a little prettier; remembered a time when mom and dad went to church etc. etc. These tiny differences, coupled with her innate desire to better herself and magnified over a life time have become huge. But at the end of the day, how am I fundamentally so different from a woman in an African slum? Probably not. Nor can anybody say precisely how they would react until placed in the same situation.

Bless your mother for taking every opportunity afforded to her. . .regardless of the form that opportunity took.

Anonymous said...

The times when the people have lived with "no poor among them" have not been because no poor existed, nor times when circumstances that lead to poverty existed (widowhood, illness, mental or physical handicaps, fatherlessness). I think those circumstances will always be with us. Instead, those times were those where the personal charity was so high that everyone was taken care of to the extent of no longer being poor.
I think the problem that the Democrats and Republicans have with government safety nets is not that one group feels sympathy for the poor and that the other doesn't, it is that one group feels "well, we have to do something," and the other feels, "but something doesn't work." If government programs led to people getting an education and improving a family situation; if they were a temporary crutch, it would be different. But when they lead to generations of people who get just enough money to survive but inspire resentment and entitlement, there is a problem. When those same programs penalize the things that will help lead to a solution, like marriage, there is a problem. I don't have a solution, but there is a problem. I taught special ed for years; I know there will always be those among us who do not have the intelligence or ability to take care of themselves, and perhaps the government is the best able to care for them. But C.S. Lewis said that if Satan wants to be successful, he will push our benevolence out to people we have never met and keep it far away from our family and neighbors. So maybe the best thing is to make sure that if your neighbor or family member is out of work/a single mom/a disabled vet you are helping them with your service and financial blessings and prayers.

Shiree said...

I also align myself more with the Democratic party because I am NOT comfortable with the "lift yourself up by the bootstraps" mentality. It just doesn't feel right to me, though I can see the problems with the side I chose. I figure that I would rather err on the side of compassion and love and leave the judging to someone better qualified to do so (the Lord). I don't want to judge a rich man or a poor man because I don't know their heart.

I think that we each just each take a close look at where our heart is. I hope to have enough money that when someone needs help I can send them a $500 check (or more). I hope to use my resources to bless others but I also believe that the Lord wants us to have a joyful and abundant life. Abundance can be more than money, yes, but I believe it can also include money.

So, in response to your question about what our role is in helping to equalize I think that I hope to teach my children to be less judgmental. I hope that they can see each of God's children as just that. I hope that they, in their future roles and careers, will offer help and blessing to those around them. And in my own life I hope to do the same. Maybe I am not actually DOING much, but the seeds will hopefully bring forth their fruit.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

And yet, Anonymous, Cathy's story above is proof that the system, when coupled with righteous desires and principles, can work. My mom's own dysfunctional family has benefited greatly over the years from my mom generosity with her time and money. And yet it doesn't come close to making up the difference. My mom is grateful for those government programs that have prevented some members of her family from, quite frankly, becoming homeless. . . or left in a situation where they would have to move in with her. Some might call that a lack of charity; I think my mom calls it self-preservation.

Some things the government CAN do better because it can mobilize on a large scale. I can appreciate that Republican businessmen say they just want "government out of their way," but for loads of other people, government is all that stands between them and total despair. If we want to leave adults out to dry, that is one thing, but so many government programs really do aim at children--the most vulnerable and least able to make helpful decisions.

Perhaps then my obligation, particularly aligning myself with the Democrats, is to ensure that I don't abdicate my responsibility for real generosity to anybody else. To see government help as a sometimes helpful safety net, but my own help as equally essential.

Cathy said...

"To see government help as a sometimes helpful safety net, but my own help as equally essential."

I think this is exactly what we need to do. The past couple of days, I've been debating what to do with a government check from our first foster care experience. I am lucky enough to not need the money, and I told them not to pay me--but they cut me a check anyway. So do I return the money to an underfunded bureaucracy? Do I turn around and try and fill a hole in the system, like the government refusal to fund parenting classes or substance abuse counseling for parents in trouble until their children have been taken into protective custody? I'm thinking of choosing the second option with this and future checks, but will I be able to do it effectively?

I look at the social programs out there, and they are riddled with problems. But I still think the best thing we can do is try and work with them, letting them do the things they do best and adding to them and reforming them as needed. And Anon., I would agree that it is dangerous to become too detached from service, although I'm not sure what C S Lewis quote you're referring to. The one that springs to mind for me is the Screwtape Letters temptation to have our charitable works become something we spend a great deal of time preparing for and planning, but less founded in reality, while our treatment of those near to us is unkind daily--in effect having our "charity" become more fantasized than real and our selfishness concrete. Which quote did you have in mind? I do think it is a very good point that government charity is not enough, and that personal action and service are required.

Also, I need to give my stepdad credit for all he did and does. He made a huge difference to my family.

Also, STM, I agree--there are times when government can fill roles that family cannot. Do I like knowing that my siblings and myself had to reject some appeals for help from my biological father and eventually let him be homeless? No--it is horrible to have to make choices of that sort. Could I let him destroy me and my family by giving in to his appeal to live with me and "have me take care of him" (as he never cared for any of his children)? Also totally unacceptable. I can forgive him, but I cannot let the destruction reach another generation. And in this situation, government and charitable programs become a relief, as do LDS beliefs about personal choice and responsibility. I have a responsibility to try and save people but they have a responsibility to save themselves.

Anonymous said...

I didn't mean to turn this into a political discussion-and I know that for some families, like Cathy's can use the safety systems in place as a temporary lift to help them lift themselves. Our family has used some of them ourselves. And who hasn't made use of student loans or grants? My point was that, as CS Lewis said, the further you push your charity out to those you don't know personally, the less good it actually does them and you. (And yes, that is from the Screwtape Letters-I am studying them for a class.) Everything I do for someone else benefits us both, but what I do for my neighbor goes further, blesses her more, and builds a better relationship than my paying more taxes to benefit someone I have never met can do. I'm happy to pay my taxes to do so-but it does my heart much less good.
One the other hand, it always makes me crazy in Sunday School when people soften up the prohibitions against wealth in the Book of Mormon. If I were much richer than my neighbor I would walk VERY gingerly around this subject and be VERY sure that I was being VERY generous. Rich people are not looked upon very kindly in the scriptures.