Disavowal Politics

There is a paradox in mass movements wherein a person or group of people will commit some terrible act, claim an association with a particular movement, and then people outside the movement will demand that the people inside of it disavow those who committed the terrible act.

It’s pretty typical, for instance, of Islam. The narrative goes like this: some terrorist group or individual terrorist does something terrible, and non-Muslims call upon Muslim leaders to disown or disavow the terrible acts and their perpetrators. There are a few problems with this response, whether the case is terrorism or not. Here are some.

1.) To call upon “moderate Muslims” to disown “extremist Muslims” is to suggest — just as the terrorists do — that Islam is a big continuum with the most committed people perpetrating acts of violence, and the lesser committed people not perpetrating acts of violence. This is a handy way to reinforce the idea that whether or not you commit acts of violence is a good litmus test for whether or not you’re a real [whatever].

2.) Disavowal has a kind of transitive property. What I mean by this is that when we call upon groups to disown violent factions we oftentimes wind up expecting these ‘good’ people to offer a blanket disavowal, a total disassociation, a complete rejection of everything the violent faction claimed and/or stood for. Because demands for disavowal usually come at moments of fervor — nobody is calling upon Christians to mass-disavow the Serbian Christians who committed genocide against Bosnian Muslims, because it happened twentysomething years ago — it is hard to render a nuanced response in disavowal-form. The whole genre of disowning is about performing an act of penance, which you can’t do in measured tones. (Thus the language often used to demand repudiation/disavowal of Muslim terrorists from everyday Muslims extends even to demands that Muslims ‘refudiate‘ the construction of mosques in particular places, because 9/11.)

3.) Disavowal doesn’t even do much, especially when it is preferred to other forms of (actually targeted) accountability. Look at Ron Paul: he was more than happy to disown fans of his who hate Jews and Black people, and he was more than happy to accept their money and support.

4.) Demands for disavowal can reify movements in way that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Movements are multi-valent, they have a lot of moving parts, and usually an array of primary and secondary goals. More vexing yet, goals and motives can be separate things. One’s motive, for example, for participating in the Catholic worker movement might be a belief in the universal value of human life and dignity, and a sense that workers are being abused on those counts; but the goals can be enumerated in much more concrete terms — having to do with wages, benefits, labor protections, and so on. So, do we categorize movements by their goals or motives? This is fraught ground, but when you demand that group x condemn person y, you’re presuming the movement is ‘about’ whatever they seem to share, when that might not be quite true. (Libertarians will also tell you they care a lot about human life/dignity, but they certainly share few goals with the Catholic worker movement; likewise, pro-Israel Evangelicals and Zionists have the same short-term goals, but I don’t think it would be an honest gesture to say they belong to the same movement.)

So the urge to call for disavowal isn’t very good for politics. It can encourage the behavior it intends to discourage and it can cripple movements that have good intentions by conflating them with ones who have only bad intentions. Further, it can distort good messages and engender further resentment where it already exists, which is the last thing anybody should want in a particularly tense political moment.

This post is about the police officers who were killed today in New York. Evidently the person who killed them did so out of vengeance, which I detest. I sort of suspect we will soon begin to hear calls for disavowal directed at protesters and leaders of the protest movements spurred on by the killings of black men by police recently. None of those protests have anything meaningful in common with this event, which was indisputably evil. I just hope that a more constructive approach is chosen than the usual I-demand-you-disown-this approach, because it is not a very good one, and certainly doesn’t sow peace.

Businesses & Moral Obligations

Back in the day, the push among those who did not much like the idea of state welfare was to argue that benefits should come through the employer. This was pretty popular in a lot of Catholic worker rhetoric. It is not a stupid idea; businesses pretty much run their own miniature welfare regimes in a lot of cases, providing for illness, vacations and leisure, pensions in old age, compensation in certain circumstances of injury, etc, not to mention wages themselves. If you’re the sort who wants to see benefits like these come through the employer, you’ll probably like what Dorothy Day had to say about that here:

“We believe that social security legislation, now balled as a great victory for the poor and for the worker, is a great defeat for Christianity…It is an acceptance of Cain’s statement, on the part of the employer. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Since the employer can never be trusted to give a family wage, nor take care of the worker as he takes care of his machine when it is idle, the state must enter in and compel help on his part.”

Day’s complaint was, in part, that if states step in with their own welfare regimes, then employers are free to turn their backs on their employees, refusing them even basic benefits. This certainly doesn’t do much in terms of cohesion among employer and employee, and surrounding community, which is something I would presume you would be worried about if you were generally interested in averting widespread class antagonism. And, further, it doesn’t do much to prevail upon businesses that they do, in fact, have a moral purpose, and that like all elements of human sociality they should perform a positive function toward human flourishing. It allows them to exist in a twilight zone of false moral neutrality, wherein they sometimes weakly protest that they’re generating profit and products which is helping everyone, so we should all hush. (That’s a lie, by the way.)

But, alas, it seems the vision that would have forgone state welfare in favor of responsible behavior on behalf of employers is finally destroyed, and conservatives have killed it. A couple of prime specimens from the last few days include Matt Walsh and Olivia Nuzzi, with the former arguing against employment protections for pregnant women, and the latter arguing in favor of Uber price gouging during, among other calamities, terrorist attacks.

Exhibit A, Walsh*:

“We need to stop crying about our ‘rights’ every time something doesn’t turn out the way we wanted. We need to stop crying ‘discrimination’ every time our employer doesn’t give us the special treatment we desire. We need to stop trying to turn everything into a federal regulation. If you think employers have a moral obligation to accommodate pregnant women — fine. I agree, to a certain extent. But it can’t become a legal obligation.”
Exhibit B, Nuzzi:
“The fact that Uber allowed surge pricing during a hostage crisis may lead you to believe that the company doesn’t care about you, and you would be correct. But Uber does not have a responsibility to care about you. Uber is not a government entity, and it is not beholden to the general carless public during an unwelcome drizzle of rain or even a time of great distress.”
There you have it: a total dismissal of any actionable moral obligations on behalf of businesses. Walsh’s proviso that he does think businesses have a moral obligation to accommodate pregnant women “to a certain extent” is weak and toothless, with the “certain extent” probably correlating pretty nicely with the characterization of pregnant women’s needs as “the special treatment [they] desire.” It’s vestigial rhetoric from a time when people like Dorothy Day really did expect some type of positive innovation in employer-employee relations. The Nuzzi passage is damning on those same grounds, and without any ghosts of bygone years: businesses don’t care about you, they don’t have to, and however you cope with that is your problem, not theirs.
Okay, fine. This directly undercuts current conservative claims that businesses will, if left to their own devices, devise very cushy plans to meet the needs of their pregnant employees. If businesses’ mealy-mouthedly alluded moral obligations can never correlate with legal ones, or if, in fact, those moral obligations never existed in the first place, then pushing benefits through employers is neither actionable nor reliable. In that case, you either have to argue that people — say, pregnant women, people in communities businesses are embedded within, etc — should expect zero protection whatsoever from businesses in times of need, or that there should be protections, and that they should come from someplace else than businesses.
Which works for me. I’m all for rendering paid maternity leave through the state. Other countries do it. We could also socialize Uber, as Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert have argued, if its management is bent on refusing to acknowledge any kind of moral obligation to employee or community. The point here is that if you are going to advocate for an absence of reliable, actionable moral obligations on behalf of businesses, then the provisions that would otherwise come through them will have to come through some other system, or not at all.
*Not encouraging him by linking. Easily locatable via google if you wanna subject yourself to the whole screed.

Property Theories & the Buffered Self

When you think about how to measure whether or not the institution of private property is functioning correctly, there are two different approaches you can take.

1.) A property rights approach, in which property ownership is an intrinsic good, that is, a good unto itself, because each person (or some persons, as it usually goes) has a discrete right to property ownership. These typically come bundled with theories of property acquisition (how you turn ‘stuff in the world’ into ‘private property’) and in many cases the acquisition theory is linked with the right. One example is the Lockean labor-mixing theory, wherein you metaphysically blend yourself into stuff to turn it into property, and thereby have a right to that property; there are also lots of ‘desert theories’, whereby you work with things and then come to deserve them by nature of having worked with them, and thus have a right to that property. In this vein of theorizing, property is functioning correctly when people’s right to own appropriately acquired property is protected by various institutions.

2.) A social function approach, in which property ownership is an extrinsic good, which means that it is good only insofar as it affects goods outside itself. Another way to put it would be that property ownership is instrumental, and that it is a ‘good’ thing only when it is supporting some higher good. There are a variety of higher goods you can imagine the institution of private property to support — order is a common one, so is human flourishing. This view of property requires no affinity with any particular acquisition theory; it is concerned with what the existing institution of private property is for. In this vein of theorizing, property is functioning correctly when it is maximally serving the good it contributes to, such as human flourishing.

What you have here are two distinct sources of justification for the institution of private property. The trouble with the first is that all that is required for property transactions and the resultant circumstances to be just is for property rights — the right to acquire and own property — to be protected. Operating under this sort of theory alone, you can easily have situations of profound wealth inequality arise which must be understood as ‘just’, because property rights theories are concerned with the process of acquiring and owning property, not the correct use of property.

That would be bad enough. But the greater issue with that form of theorizing is that it makes people indifferent to the terrible circumstances that result from procedurally-just property transactions. Because property transactions are viewed as just based on whether or not individual rights to acquisition and ownership are respected (regardless of how the outcomes effect the community at large), these theories reinforce the idea that justice can be achieved in terms of individual, procedural choices. If everyone has their right to acquire and own property equally protected — that is, if everyone is guaranteed by the state that they can buy and sell and own just the same as everyone else — then justice has been served. All that is required to say that we have a just proprietary situation is that everyone has the same protection of rights. But these theories do not provide for a consideration of the flourishing of whole communities in real, material terms. In other words, heavy commitments to property rights approaches to ownership reinforce the phenomenon of the modern, ‘buffered self.’

The ‘buffered self’ is a form of identity which is closed off from other persons; you are your own sovereign, you are free, you have rights, and your dignity rests upon your invulnerability. Proprietary theories that view justice as a matter of your personal, individual rights being fulfilled play into this isolated self by remaining totally agnostic to the good of the community. They divorce the meaning of property from property itself. Instead, they commit themselves to no meanings, only procedures, and do not view justice as a matter of total community outcomes, only individual ones, and only in terms of particular discrete rights.

On the other hand, property theories that view property as an instrument for the communal good militate against this ‘buffered identity’ by contextualizing individual actions and procedures (such as property transactions) in the impact on the community at large. It’s pretty hard in set-ups like these to think to yourself, ‘doesn’t matter if I wind up with 500 million times the wealth of everyone else in my county due to this transaction, because I did it fair and square, and it’s my right.’ Instead you think, ‘so long as there are a lot of people without much who aren’t able to live good lives because I’ve got all this money to myself, I’m not actually entitled to all of it.’

These are stark explanations of the two different mindsets, but the point is this: the liberal property rights theories you hear in political discourse these days are not only bad because of what they produce materially (see: inequality), but also because of the ideology they factor so seamlessly into: namely, the idea that justice is merely a matter of individual procedural rights and protections, and that we have no need to factor the flourishing of our communities into the question of justice.

The Language of Charity

Short post today: I’m trying to get better at these.

It’s fair to say that modern welfare ‘evolved’, in some ways, from the charitable projects maintained by the Church in the middle ages. How that evolution took place is a matter of argument. There are a lot of grand sweeping narratives about the changes in poor relief from the middle ages to the early modern to the modern period, with the Protestant Reformation, increasingly centralized states, and so forth being cited as contributing engines. These are matters of historical argument.

Regardless of the big engines of change in the matter of poor relief, one of the interesting ways it can be tracked is through changes in the language of charity. This has interesting implications for our current debates about the purview of welfare versus the purview of charity. On the subject of languages of charity, Miri Rubin writes:

“Although the language of medieval Christian charity always required a degree of help to ‘others’, a different and alternative idiom, an idiom of kinship, spiced with some of the traditional images of charity and love, came to articulate new choices. This development can be correlated to similar manifestations of the nature of co-operation in the structures of late medieval town government, in the preponderance of faction within it, and in the more tentative attitudes toward public office by those who would have constituted the natural office-holding elite in earlier times…These shifts in the language of charity, in which the dispositions toward giving were enshrined, were thoroughgoing and dramatic. The symbolic articulation of the charitable act was being wrested from its earlier institutional forms which were relatively open and inclusive; these older forms were being redesigned to ensure greater exclusivity and discrimination in allocation of relief funds, and altogether new types of relief were created in substantially altered social contexts.”

In other words, the way charity was explained — consider “we must help the poor and the stranger” versus “I must help my brother and neighbor” — correlated with broad institutional changes in how charity was rendered. Instead of hospitals serving as communal locations for a variety of services (a hostel-like capacity, a retirement-home-like capacity, a modern-hospital-like capacity, etc.) they gradually changed into sites for the working of private charity. Specifically, they lost their space for poor and sick people, and became primarily places for the keeping of elderly well-to-do people living on privately provided pensions. Rather than a community reaching out to ‘the other’, they became places where individuals reached out to people they had kinship with. And the language around charity either changed with the society, or pressed such changes along — or a little of both.

But human needs actually hadn’t changed all that much. Part of Rubin’s point is to demonstrate that the language we use to describe charity — who gets it, why, who gives it, why, what the goals are, when/where it should be done — can create certain charitable institutions and dispense with others, while the actual human needs remain more or less static. And this is directly applicable to how we think about charity and welfare now.

Think about the language we use for ‘welfare’ versus ‘public goods.’ Welfare is: the EITC, food stamps (SNAP), TANF, medicaid, etc. On the other hand, social security, veterans’ services, public schools, and so forth are typically not imagined to be welfare programs. Complicating matters, nearly all of these things — food assistance, schooling, care for the elderly, etc — were once thought of as matters of charity.

So what language do we use to stabilize our categories? ‘Earned’, ‘worked for’, ‘deserving’, ‘investment.’ For the social services that people we respect use, like social security and veterans’ services, we tend to cite service and/or work as evidence that the funds being spent on them are truly deserved. On the other hand, we tend to try to enforce work (even where some work already exists!) to make recipients of other kinds of benefits into ‘deserving’ figures. And, indeed, the caricatures of welfare recipients intended to impugn them (in order to slash welfare) always focus on their slovenliness and ingratitude, further marks against their lack of desert.

There are other languages of welfare (multiple different strains can co-exist) that inform how we view the justness or injustice of social programs. My purpose here is only to demonstrate how much work the language does in stabilizing categories that are actually unstable. There are surely ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ people making use of all manner of programs, welfare or not; the idea that any set of persons is categorically lazy or undeserving is totally ridiculous on its own merits, such as they are. But the language of desert is so firmly attached to how we separate out these various programs that it bleeds into how we imagine the recipients. It becomes unclear whether SNAP is welfare because undeserving people get it while public school is good because all children deserve a good education; or whether undeserving people get SNAP because it’s welfare, while deserving kids get public school because every kid deserves a good education.

So don’t let language mess with your head. We can and should think way outside the current boxes on matters of welfare and charity, but language tends to be one of those boxes that is easy to forget if you’re not exactly paying attention to it. Worse, it can perpetuate ‘truths’ very easily by pretending to be descriptive when it is really prescriptive. This is something I think about a lot, and I hope you found this as interesting as I do.

Property-Based Ethics

A while ago, when I was writing about Christian legal realism, I pointed out that one of the problems with the veneration of private property rights is that they play such an integral role in the liberal (classical liberal, not libruls) conception of the individual that they wind up forming the basis of most liberal ethics. The problem with this, I argued, is that property rights do not actually occupy a huge center of moral concern in Christianity, and therefore societies that do construe property rights as central will conflict with Christian views of the person and ownership.

At the time, some Christo-sphere person, I can’t remember who, made some kind of sneery remark about not being able to imagine what “property-based ethics” could even mean. And I didn’t follow up on it because I had a hard time thinking of something systematic; these things can express themselves in strange ways. But now we have an example on hand.

Since it was announced that Michael Brown’s murder will earn no response from the justice system, there have been protests/riots. In the course of those protests/riots, which, mind you — are enacting the response the justice system totally refused to — there has been property damage and looting. People are very upset about this property damage.

It’s time to hold protestors accountable, says the Daily Beast. Make those protestors pay for property damages, says Fox News. Why can’t you just protest like Martin Luther King Jr., all non-threatening and respectful of my property rights, wonders USA Today. In fact, many calls for protestors to pipe down and be nice have been filed under a bizarre comparison to MLK, whose robust democratic socialism seems to have been whitewashed from American memory. He was a bigger threat to your total proprietary dominion than many seem to think.

But dead men loot no stores. In that way, they’re exceedingly appealing subjects for a culture that bases itself in the primacy of ownership. This is why the foot-stamping that protestors should be more like ghosts, and why the fact that Michael Brown (and now Eric Garner) aren’t really a big concern compared to looting and destroying property. For states based in an ethic of ownership — wherein every ethical premise is phrased in terms of ownership (“I own my body”, “My body, my property”, “I own my life”, etc.) — establishing the security of ownership is key. Because the liberal mind (John Locke being a good example) imagines ownership to begin with one’s self-ownership which is then applied to other objects, the security of property ownership is conflated with the security of self-ownership. If your property isn’t secure, therefore, you are not secure in your own self-possession: the borders of your self become porous, others can get in, and you no longer feel like the isolated, atomistic, wholly autonomous subject for domination that the liberal imaginary suggests. How to secure such a tightly controlled system of private ownership?

Policing. And you shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that the stories being adduced to parse Brown and Garner’s deaths have to do with proprietary infractions: the cigarillos Mike Brown stole are the impetus for his pursuit, and high taxes have been cited as the root of Garner’s killing. These narratives make the turns of events look coherent and necessary because they ground them in ownership and its vagaries, where police must intervene to regulate and secure, come what may. They foreclose the question of whether or not property is worth killing over: it isn’t relevant; this is just what police do.

The intense distress over looting and property destruction follow in this same vein. Sure, yes, people are being killed by police without any recourse or redress, but the real disorder arises when property comes into question. A system of ethics based in property ownership can survive if human life is not much respected (see: slavery, where human lives become property), but it is much harder to maintain when property itself is not taken very seriously. So the more immediate, visceral problem for people who benefit from the veneration of ownership really is the looting, the theft of cigarillos, the imposition of taxes, the burning of cars. They’re not mistaken about their interests.

But they are very severely mistaken about where property belongs in the matrix of human values. Property, rightly construed, can have a salutary social function. But this is only when ownership is premised upon the prior meeting of everyone’s needs. It is also only feasible when property itself, as an institution, is viewed as a means to justice and a tool for serving humankind. These formulations are typical of the Patristics, from Ambrose to Augustine to Chrysostom. They live on in Christian discourses which aim to reestablish property as an institution with a social function, rather than view ownership as a virtue in and of itself, equal to the other goods in the world — such as human life. Unless we can slice back through so many layers of proprietary philosophy and readings of the person, we’re stuck with the police regimes that prop up vicious but fragile systems of property-based ethics.

Charity & Ministry

There’s an interesting species of Christianesque argument against welfare that goes like this: “by replacing aid that could be given by community members who are Christian, welfare programs prevent us from evangelizing to the poor. Thus they suffer spiritually even if they do not suffer physically.” Obviously this would be worse in the long-run for poor people, as we all eventually die and those of us who die in spiritual ruins may suffer some consequence; this argument therefore attempts to claim that being against welfare but for charity is the only sensible Christian option.

It’s a curious argument because it’s the dirty inverse of a medieval conception of charity that went something like this: “we must care for the poor so that they will use their superior standing with God to pray for us who have an inferior standing with God.” (cf. John Bossy, Christianity in the West 1400-1700.) In that formulation, care for the poor was an exchange that helped to ensure the spiritual destinies of the rich. That the formula has been reversed in modern times tells us, among other things, that we are now distrustful of Christ’s repeated statements that He is with the poor; rather we presume them to be in immediate need of evangelizing by the well-off. It further demonstrates that there is no sense of exchange left to charity; at this point, it’s treated like a curative measure, physician to patient.

This new reading of charity is thoroughly modern. Don’t be taken in by the claims that it’s associated with community or locality; it may theorize itself in that way, but it’s not a ‘traditional’ approach to charity by any means. It rather borrows from your standard 19th – 20th century imagination of poverty, wherein the poor are poor by nature of their lack of virtue and must be addressed as a kind of social contaminant.

With all that said, there is another very crucial problem with this approach: it presumes the poverty we encounter to be a pre-existing condition that we get to contend with, and then assumes a set of tools for doing that, with welfare as one and Christian charity as another. This is wrong. Poverty is a condition that comes about through institutional decisions. It is, in other words, a condition we create. As Matt Bruenig writes,

“The word “redistribution” implies that there is a distribution that is default, and that we redistribute when we modify the distribution away from it. This, of course, is wrong. There is no default distribution. All distributions are the consequence of any number of institutional design choices, none of which are commanded by the fabric of the universe. In the United States, we have constructed and enforce institutions of private property ownership and contract enforcement. Those institutions generate very different end distributions than we would see if they did not exist. But they do not have to exist by logical necessity, nor do they constitute the default form of economic institutions.”

Poverty is not like a tornado, it is not like an earthquake. It will always be with us for a number of different reasons, but it can be produced at different levels and rates — that is, we can move the needle on poverty itself, and raise the floor of poverty quite a bit. This means that when we say we should do nothing in terms of moving resources around (through welfare, for example) all we’re really saying is “I like the current arbitrary distribution because it produces poor people whose poverty I can then use to minister to them.” This is no different than saying, “I like constant war, because it gives me wounded soldiers to minister to in hospitals.” In both cases, the argument turns out to be less about what tools we should use and more about what conditions we should create in order to make optimal captive audiences for the Gospel. I can’t really imagine a world in which this form of evangelizing makes much sense, or a parameter that would logically bracket it against, say, intentionally spreading disease in order to minister to the sick. Strange way to love thy neighbor.

A better approach, in my thinking, is to choose to create less poverty via just distributions (as Pope Francis has indicated) and to minister through conventional means. Don’t worry about the poor: Christ is already with them, and poor people don’t actually appear to have much of a problem with their religiosity. There is no reason, then, to hack off parts of the state that assist poor people: working for justice through the state is just another avenue for grace, and it does not obviate one’s obligation to work for justice in other institutions and aspects of life.

Kiss the Kochs

If I ever had enough money to wedge my way into the Washington Post to do nothing more than write a love letter to my wealthy co-aristocrats, I would dump money into charitable programs until I no longer had any wealth of note. This would serve two purposes: firstly, it would help some poor folks. Secondly, it would prevent me from embarrassing myself in the style of Mr and Mrs John Saeman, whose Washington Post opinion piece on how great the Kochs are (and also maybe Jesus) must have been drafted on hundred dollar bills to interest the editors. Otherwise I’m not sure how a piece with such little substance made it to press.

The argument is this: American welfare programs are encouraging joblessness and stagnation, and therefore they must be stopped and replaced with charitable initiatives. They believe that this is the appropriate Christian response to poverty, because dignified work is important to flourishing:

“…the U.S. welfare system can actually deny dignity while claiming to grant it. Some government assistance programs can be more lucrative than work. This unfairly — but understandably — incentivizes some to stay out of the job market, abusing the social safety net designed to help those who truly need help. In so doing, it traps people in the poverty they’re trying to escape.”

There is no streamlined US ‘welfare system.’ You can fold a lot of programs into it. Public school is one, if we’re speaking strictly about things that allow you to slack off and leave it up to Uncle Sam: after all, if we had no public school, parents would really have to get their butts in gear and pay for those private schools. So the fact that public school is free certainly allows parents to laze around, mucking through their wimpy middle class jobs without putting a fire under them to really zoom upwardly through the social stratosphere. But nobody counts public school as a welfare program, because it’s only welfare if only poors use it, for some reason.

What the Koch Apologia Resource Center probably means to indicate here are programs like SNAP and the EITC. These are two big, well-known programs that poor people get a lot of assistance from. So: are these programs preventing people from getting to work? No. Empirically: no.

“The overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so.  Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP — and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP.  The rates are even higher for families with children — more than 60 percent work while receiving SNAP, and almost 90 percent work in the prior or subsequent year. The number of SNAP households that have earnings while participating in SNAP has been rising for more than a decade, and has more than tripled — from about 2 million in 2000 to about 6.4 million in 2011.”

As for the EITC, well, being the earned income tax credit, everyone who gets it is working. Other big welfare programs, like Medicaid and SSI, relate to poor people who are elderly or have health issues, and it isn’t clear how those would impact work, unless the argument is that people should have to work not for dignity’s sake, but to pay cash for healthcare, and/or that it is more dignified for an elderly or disabled person to work to their own physical detriment than to receive assistance. That’s a peculiar definition of dignity if I’ve ever heard one.

So welfare doesn’t appear to be the destructive influence on work that it’s claimed to be. No surprises there. But suppose the second half of the formulation still holds true, and we should be looking to charitable programs instead of welfare programs. Again, I cannot for the life of me understand why people who oppose welfare programs because of their supposed perverse incentive effects would ever support charity. Whether the money is coming from the bepearled ladies’ golf captain in the nice subdivision or from a government check in the mail, if we are to believe that having monetary assistance disincentivizes work, then it will not matter from whence it comes. If you argue, as House Saeman does, that the problem with welfare is (in part) that it removes incentives to work, then you should never surrender a dime to charity, lest you participate in sin yourself.

What about stagnation: is the scourge of welfare trapping poor people in their poverty? I’m not sure why people wildly gesture at this point as though it’s something we should presume when it’s actually something we can measure. Countries with robust welfare regimes — like Denmark, Finland, and Norway — outperform the United States when it comes to intergenerational social mobility, meaning that kids in Scandinavian countries are more likely to come into different means than their parents than those in the USA:

“The relationship between father-son earnings is tighter in the United States than in most peer OECD countries, meaning U.S. mobility is among the lowest of major industrialized economies. The relatively low correlations between father-son earnings in Scandinavian countries provide a stark contradiction to the conventional wisdom. An elasticity of 0.47 found in the United States offers much less likelihood of moving up than an elasticity of 0.18 or less, as characterizes Finland, Norway, and Denmark.”

So there’s that. On that subject of dignity, I wonder if the Kochs are really so fixated on the dignity of the working poor as they claim. After all, it isn’t just ‘work’ that confers dignity — or else welfare recipients could theoretically do unpaid labor and still collect welfare and be in the right by the Saemans’ lights — but rather paid work. And it isn’t just paid work that is befitting of human dignity in Catholic social teaching, but adequately paid work. Pius XI in Divini Redemptoris: “the demands of social justice will not have been met if iti s not within the power of workers to earn a wage providing a secure livelihood for themselves and their families.” So, a living wage. And in Casti Connubii: “in the state, such economic and social methods should be adopted as will enable every head of a family to earn as much as, according to his station in life, is necessary for himself, his wife, and for the rearing of his children.” This is what used to be called a ‘family wage’, but is pretty much a living wage.

So Charles Koch, aggressively snuggled in this article, is all for a living wage, right? After all, this is all about dignified work. But nah, no, Charles Koch is definitely against any kind of bar-nudging on the minimum wage. Whether or not this is a problem for his fans is unclear; it’s definitely a problem for the long tradition of Catholic social teaching, though. And so, too, is the suggestion here — sly and slickly rendered — that there is some sort of conflict between subsidiarity (local applications of resources) and solidarity (broad assurance that resources get to where they’re needed) when welfare is involved. As I wrote for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (an avid supporter of SNAP), there is need for welfare and charity; there always has been, and between these two stripes of community engagement we have a fantastic array of tools with which to respond to poverty and suffering.

But as always, Jesus says it best: “You cannot serve God and money.” In a column alternately praising the Church and the Kochs, it’s pretty clear a choice has been made, and which one it is.

Resisting Christmas

I’m one of those Christmas people. I am not a Christmas cheer evangelist; I am not trying to convince you to be thrilled that Christmas is approaching. It’s more the reverse: throughout the long year with its long days I am usually very outwardly disposed, going places and seeing people and responding to all kinds of spontaneity (summer is notorious for this), but by the time Christmas approaches the days are short and the nights are long and cold and collars rise around looped scarves which consume the ears and train the eyes straight ahead. The quintessential winter activity is walking home alone in the dark, lost in thought. When Christmas is on the way, I have nothing but time to think to myself, and I imagine this would be a very grim period (being consumed with thoughts and whatnot) were it not for Christmas itself.  If I turned inward and found anything other than the gleam of hope — Christ, yes, but first the sparkle of the Star of Bethlehem — the season would just be winter, the annual performance of death.

But because of Christmas, there are lights strewn through the black of winter — the multicolored bulbs on the houses of my suburban Texan neighborhood glow in my thoughts, and at night when I glimpse streetlights and neon shop signs in Providence through the blur of tears resisting cold wind, I can see them again. Christmas is about hope, and anticipation: there’s an intentional buildup, and a kind of trepidation, though the payoff is assured and absolute. If nobody had ever written any other verse about Christmas than ‘God and sinners reconciled’ it would have been enough. But I’m glad they wrote others.

And it seems so much of what we do at Christmas is done with such a tremendous investment of hope. You travel with the hope that everything will go well, not only that you will be safely delivered, but that this will be the year your family doesn’t do that thing they will most certainly do. And you buy gifts, send cards, all with the incredible hope that they will be accepted at the least, at most received well. All of these exchanges and movements of stuff and people, all this shifting around — always it is accompanied by the timid hope that something good will come of it.

This is why people detest Christmas. All of the objects and cultural products routinely excoriated for their obnoxiousness — Christmas trees (messy; pagan; environmentally unfriendly); Christmas songs (bad; boring; pagan); Christmas gifts (expensive; pagan; materialistic) — are recruited as symbols of disappointment. Charlie Brown’s humble tree at first appears this way, but in an answer to Christmastime cynicism, it turns out alright. Not perfect, not very much majestic, but just right. This is how Christmas ought to be, and all kinds of media about Christmas tell the same essential Christmas story: the lowly and meek will more than suffice. The problem is just that it doesn’t always turn out that way.

The holidays produce expectations that go unfulfilled; lonely people feel lonelier amidst demands for cheer, commercialism and the immediacy of ownership are swapped for faith, and everything comes out feeling commodified and artificial. Every year, the same op-eds about materialism arise drearily, informing us that the Christmas-industrial-complex is a scam. Sure, but everything is. Where are the daily op-eds about the commodification of everything, about the fact that all personality, all sentiment, all relationships are not only expressed but experienced through consumption? You’re not really you in any unique sense until you’ve differentiated your iPhone case from hers: if I can’t tell you’re a certain kind of person by the jackets you buy, are you really that kind of person at all? But the low murmur about the crisis of commodification (which has been going strong for many decades now) doesn’t crescendo into a shrill keen until Christmas, and there’s a good reason for that: Christmas isn’t just a good example, it’s an offensive one. While iPhones never promised not to sink to the level of base salesmanship, Christmas did. Christmas gets slammed for its collusion with consumerism precisely because we hope for so much more from it. Christmas should be better than this.

And it is, even if we’re not. Hope is bound up in the essence of Christmas, it’s the bright beaming star in the middle of the story. If there weren’t a glimmer of hope to be frustrated, then there wouldn’t be such remonstration, every single year, against the disappointment that can slip in between unhappy relatives and lovers and friends. If there has been a failure in presenting the message of Christmas, it’s this: Christmas does deliver on the hope it promises, in that God and sinners are, as a result of this event, reconciled. And all the wrongs that come in between, all the pain and suffering and loneliness and brutality that passes on earth, will also be soothed in the fulfillment of this promise.

So for Christians fearful over the seemingly rapid disengagement of Christianity from culture, Christmas haters should be a comforting sign, not an unsettling one. People who are intensely bothered by Christmas have seen a hope in it that has gone frustrated, sometimes over and over again. This is what makes the holidays such an excellent time to reach out to people who are suffering, and offer to suffer-with. It is right to remember that not everyone has somebody now, and that it is especially painful not to, precisely because the world can seem to shimmer, especially on snowy evenings just a few weeks before the day itself, with a sense of electric expectation. It’s painful when the moment passes unannounced and impotent.

But I think the struggle to reach out to people who suffer especially at Christmas is one of the things that makes the season perfect. You are their hope, and they are yours. People who suffer need others to relieve them, and in the relief of suffering we touch the wounds of Christ. And I don’t mind all the glitter and the shine; I know it can all seem like a spectacle, and that spectacles always lend themselves to the inauthentic and artificial. But to me it all commends the sparkle in the dark, the hope that even in such vulgar, commercialized times can’t quite be extracted from the heart of Christmas. So I am one of those Christmas people, I was born on St. Nicholas’ feast day, and I’m all into the crazy kaleidoscopic brightness of it all, and the hope, every year.

Foolishness, Poverty, Mobility

Couple days ago Rod Dreher had a go at a poor teenager in New York City and his family. He titled the column, “Poor and Foolish.” It’s about all the things poor people do — like having children out of wedlock, taking jobs instead of going to school, and so on — that allegedly make them poor. The gist of the article is that poor people keep themselves poor, ostensibly because they’re stupid; if they weren’t so ‘foolish’, they would make better choices, and be less poor.

There is a lot to say about whether or not this is factually true. Will education actually undo poverty? Doesn’t seem like it: someone has to clean toilets, do week-long carpentry gigs, and mop up vomit in hospitals. If we all had college degrees from Ivy League universities, someone would still have to do those jobs. Furthermore, white high school drop-outs have more wealth than black and Hispanic college graduates — because wealth accumulates.

And those harlots having babies out of wedlock? They don’t actually do much better when they do get married, because poverty is a stressor that leads to divorce, and divorce hits women harder than men financially. Further, because women who get pregnant out of wedlock, especially as teens, are often already poor, teenage childbearing out of wedlock is actually not as disastrous (compared to poor teens who miscarry or marry) as one might presume. This doesn’t mean teen mothers do well, it just means that poverty is so terrible that whether you have a kid or not isn’t as major as whether or not you’re living in poverty when it comes to determining what your life will be like. Over the last few years, while rates of single motherhood have risen, the percentage of poor women who are not married has remained more or less flat, meaning single motherhood isn’t actually doing that much to shove women into poverty.

Of course, there’s more to the story here. Poor people aren’t stupid, they’re not irrational, and pretending that they are supposes what is open to a middle class or wealthy person is actually available to poor people. It severely underestimates stress and the cognitive effects of scarcity, and carries that snide air of I’d-do-it-better-myself. As for me, I’m not sure I would.

But that’s all really secondary; it just feels good to sass-talk people one perceives as less rational than themselves. It’s why there’s always this truly bizarre ejaculation of  “he put himself in harm’s way!!!” every time ISIS releases a videotape of a journalist or humanitarian’s execution. I sometimes suspect people who react in that way to terrible misfortune are like people who glimpse over a precipice and run several yards away, much further than is really needed to be safe from a fall. It’s comforting to know you’re really so far removed from danger, and to reaffirm it.

I also want to meditate here on worth. The notion that poverty is an obvious and appropriate end result of ‘bad’ decisions supposes the economy has a natural moral instinct, that the invisible hand that guides resources to people operates with respect to worthiness. But none of that is necessarily true. We know it isn’t, because there are plenty of rich people who do nothing but make horrible decisions and nonetheless remain rich, and because there are people who get rich through totally unscrupulous means. Further, social mobility is something we can measure, and we know different societies have differing degrees, and the ones with high social mobility are not the ones with a special investment in free market economies. Here again, then, we should be ensuring that the destination of resources honors human worth, not contenting ourselves that wherever resources wind up tells us who is worth what.

In Luke 6:24, Jesus says:

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.

In the story of David and Bathsheba, we get basically the same report: God is angry with David in part for taking Uriah’s only wife, when David himself had everything he wanted. The situation is this: if you are well-to-do, if you have everything you want, what are you doing taking shots at people who have very little or nothing? The fact that one’s wealth is consolation means people without it haven’t been consoled, it means they’re hurting, it means Jesus Christ is aware of the pain of poverty, and condemns those who are wealthy and consoled and still indifferent to the suffering poor. This is attitudinal. For God, who made all creation for people to have in common, the stupidity, foolishness, or irrationality that supposedly leads to poverty appears to be of much less interest than the approach those who wind up on the fortunate side of things take to those who wind up on the unfortunate side.

If you take Christ seriously, then, and you imagine how you conduct yourself in this life to be preparation for the next, the really foolish thing is talking trash about the poor.


Or You Live as You Think

Paul Bourget wrote that “one must live the way one thinks or end up thinking the way one has lived.” The point being: it’s not really stable or tenable to maintain a values system that’s completely removed from how you actually live your life. Eventually you’ll either modify the values system or modify the way you live.

The Christian Science Monitor has an article out on Arnold Abbott, the 90 year old man who has been cited twice in Fort Lauderdale for feeding homeless people even after ordinances were passed to stop that. The CS Monitor wonders: “is this charity or a crime?” Well, both — but they mean crime in its normative sense. Is this charity, or is it something harmful?

Supporters of anti-homeless ordinances do say that rendering aid to homeless people is harmful. Their reasoning:

“The people feeding them are enablers, and they enable the homeless by making their lives easier…Hunger is a big motivator. Are people more likely to seek help when they’re hungry or when they’re fed and happy?”

“Feeding people on the streets is sanctioning homelessness…Whatever discourages feeding people on the streets is a positive thing.”

The notion that homelessness is something that persists only so long as it’s ‘enabled’ is completely true, but the homeless persons themselves are not the agents of it. Societies that fail to provide an adequate accessible standard of living for all people — including people with mental and physical illnesses they can’t afford to treat, which constitutes a significant number of homeless people — are the agents that enable homelessness. The idea that homeless people rationally choose to be homeless thanks to the food they periodically receive from charitable sources is complete lunacy, and I’m not even sure the people who spew it believe it.

But there is a reason they go with that approach. The real reason cities ban homelessness (in effect) is because businesses demand that they do, in order to sell things to wealthier people. People who come out to stump for those ordinances come up with a rhetoric that works because ‘homeless people are business-killing eyesores’ is no longer an acceptable public sentiment.

The sentiment that is acceptable is that charity is wrong because it allows certain conditions of poverty to persist, that is, it allows poor people to keep being poor instead of enacting some (what?) heroic measures to join the ranks of the worthwhile. Now this is an argument with some oomph: it’s the exact same one being used to go after the earned income tax credit, for example; it’s often phrased in terms of ‘dependency’ or ‘reliance.’ It’s a punitive idea, a strategy that denies structural causes of poverty and proposes that poor people will quit being poor if you just make poverty hard enough for them. Tough love, without the love.

But here’s the curious thing: usually dependency narratives — like Joni Ernst’s recent stab — lament reliance on the state, but refer with all due nostalgia to a time when people relied on charities, families, and churches. So why would the rhetoric surrounding the ‘enabling’ of poverty apply here, where private charity is being condemned?

Because you end up living as you think, after a while, and there really is no clear distinction between the enabling of poverty that arises from state assistance and enabling of poverty that arises from private assistance. Charity will be condemned with the same rule that condemns welfare, because the ‘dependency’ argument is an intentionally blunt instrument: it doesn’t really have an interest in poor people; it just proposes a premise on which to cease aid.

*(In case there is concern re: do you actually know homeless people and have a good sense of what enables homelessness? Yes, I do! It’s a topic that matters a lot to me.)