Capital in the Twenty First Century, by Thomas Piketty

Piketty’s massive book (almostt 700 pages), supported by massive data of an extraordinarily impressive variety, drive home a conclusion that today’s conservatives and, frankly, many liberals, cannot be happy about: the inequality in societies across the globe is increasing at a frenetic pace, despite occasional bumps in financial history (the 2008-9 debacle, e.g.,).

The heart of Piketty’s argument is that the growth of capital, which includes dividends, rents,  inheritances, land, buildings, etc., is constantly outpacing the growth of income, and does so by virtue of the nature of the beast itself.  And while just a few of the 1%ers live directly off capital, who can make upward of of $200,000 and more per annum.  All of these individuals pay taxes at a much reduced rate, and the wealthiest pay much less or nothing at all.

The only way to change the picture is to reform banking rules so that corporations cannot hide their profits in tax havens outside a given country.  That is a possibility in the EU; it seems much less likely in the U.S., where devotion to banks is equal to devotion to firearms.

Piketty’s proposal is a modest 4-5% (at best) tax on capital, which would greatly help the economies of many struggling countries (and the U.S., not to mention Kansas, is one of them).  But you cannot tax what monies companies take outside the U.S.  And so we have a conundrum.  The wealthiest are not about to be taxed for any reason, and their patriotism and nationalism ends with the I.R.S.

In the meantime, addressing inequality by raising the minimum wage can be seen as at best putting a band-aid on the larger issue.

Piketty’s book is one I highly recommend.  It is surprisingly not filled with a lot of jargon, but it is long and detailed and takes a bit of work.  Piketty has thoughtfully included all his graphs and charts online so the reader can study them at his leisure.

Piketty does intersect with some of Karl Marx’ ideas.  But his analysis and his proposals are not Marxist in the end.  They are progressive in a way no one seems to be thinking about these days, which is a shame.  Fox News has generally treated Piketty as something approaching the Antichrist.  Which is a recommendation in my book.

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, by Christopher R. Browning

A friend sent me this book out of the blue.  It was off the beaten track for me, though I have read things on and off over the years about the Holocaust.  The book did not at first capture my interest, and so I was very slow getting past the first 10 pages.  But eventually I made a go of it, and I am very happy I did.

The book examines the behavior of ordinary policemen working under Nazi orders in Poland.  There is an amazing wealth of information about the conduct of these men, left by the Nazis themselves.  And their conduct was brutal and awful by any standard in the universe.  Rounding up Jews, shooting women, infants and the disabled who could not keep up with the forced marches to one-on-one massacres–it was awful to read and to imagine.  Tens of thousands of Jews were murdered by about 500 policemen, only some of whom were Nazi party officials.  Most of them were just ordinary folk.

Browning makes a very good case for a multi-layered social-psychological view of what happened.  He resists the one-size-fits-all antisemitic racism that others have argued explains all of it.  He points to the notable experiments of Stanley Milgram which showed just how much people can be led to do really awful things by reason of authority or social expectation.

The book has a peculiar relevance to the current issues surrounding police conduct in relation to blacks and minorities around the United States.  It suggests that simply pointing to racism may not fully or completely answer the question why police officers do what they do.  There are also issues of training and expectations among officers, of acculturation to a society in which fear and racism both play important roles as conditioning factors.  I recall that three of the six policemen in the Freddie Gray episode were themselves black.  The problem in the end is the way people are treated and why they are treated that way.  How do the police see themselves?  How do they evaluate their conduct?

A few thoughts at the end of an interesting book.

The Bible and Homosexuality: Summary of Comments from John Boswell

Source: John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. Material taken from “Ch 4: The Scriptures”; and “Appendix 1. Lexicography and Saint Paul”.
Boswell suggests that there are just five passages in Scripture that have ever been taken as clearly implying the condemnation of homosexuality, two from the Old Testament, three from the New Testament. Before looking at these he makes several preliminary points:

1. Most early Christian misgivings about homosexuality did not rely upon Scripture, but other arguments or sources.

2. There is no word like “homosexual” in the Bible, in any manuscript, whether in Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, or Aramaic. “Homosexual” in English refers to a type of person, and there was no such concept or word in the ancient languages. The word and concept are of modern vintage (since the 16th 17th centuries). Note that the word “sodomite” is ambiguous and could refer to either homosexual or heterosexual behavior, and thus only inaccurately or misleadingly translates a concept of “homosexual”.

PASSAGE #1: Genesis 19 (the story of Sodom):

. . . the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”

The interpretations of the passage as concerned with homosexual offenses are generally very late in history. None of the references to this story in the Old Testament suggest that Sodom was destroyed because of homosexuality or the like. Most scholars today believe that the offence that led to the destruction of Sodom was inhospitality. Lot was violating the custom of Sodom by entertaining unknown guests within the city walls at night without obtaining the permission of the elders of the city. When the men of Sodom gathered around to demand that the strangers be brought out to them, “that they might know them,” they meant no more than to “know” who they were, and the city was consequently destroyed not for sexual immorality but for the sin of inhospitality to strangers. (The verb “to know” used here is not used in a sexual sense; Boswell notes that contrary to popular belief, only something like 10% of the uses of this word in Hebrew have any sexual connotations.)

An interesting confirmation of the thesis that in ancient times everyone thought Sodom was destroyed because of inhospitality comes from Jesus himself (in Matt. 10:14 15 and Luke 10:10 12):
Matt. 10:14 15

“And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”

Luke 10:10 12

“But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

References in the Old Testament also confirm that the destruction of Sodom was not because of homosexuality. Thus Ecclesiasticus (16:8) says that God abhorred the Sodomites for their pride; the Book of Wisdom suggests the same thing (19:13 14), as does Ezechiel (16:48 49).

There are sexual overtones to the story, as there are in parallel stories in Judges 19:22 ff, and Joshua 6, but the major concern is always inhospitality.

The origin of the emphasis on the story of Sodom as concerned with sexuality is probably datable to the reaction of early Jewish and Christian moralists to the sexual licentiousness of pagan culture. Evidence to this effect is found in the Jewish apocryphal writings, and in early Christian writings such as the Epistle of Jude.

Even Origen (185-254 A.D.), inclined to puritanism, dis¬cusses the sin of Sodomy as the sin of inhospitality. St. Ambrose (339-397 A.D.) followed him on this. Ambrose was concerned about the offering of Lot’s daughters as a bribe, but did not suggest homosexuality as the issue. John Cassian (360-435 A.D.) explicitly rejects the homosexuality interpretation, as does Isidore of Seville (560-636 A.D.).

It should be noted that “sodomite” is used to translate various sexual sins in the King James version. The term as originally used did not specifically mean “homosexual”, since sodomy often referred to any sexual act that was unnatural whether heterosexual or homosexual. The word in Hebrew which “sodomite” translated was kadash; according to Boswell the term meant or referred to prostitutes in sacred temples. There is no implication of homosexuality at all. The history of the condemnation of sodomy by reference to Scripture depended on mistranslations of terms.

PASSAGE #2: Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination (toevah).
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination (toevah): they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
The word for “abomination” in Hebrew is toevah which does not designate something intrinsically evil, but something which is ritually unclean, such as eating pork or engaging in intercourse during menstruation, both of which are mentioned in the same part of Leviticus as the passages above. Often toevah is employed to mean “idol”. There is thus the question whether these prohibitions stem from moral absolutes, or from concerns to keep Jews separate and distinct from the nations.

The Greek Septuagint translation eventually distinguished between violations of law or justice (anomia) vs. infringements of ritual purity or monotheistic worship (bdelugma). The Levitical prohibitions fell into the latter because they were specific to the Jews, or tied up with rules about idolatry, etc.

It should not be surprising that converts to Christianity from outside Judaism would not take these laws any more seriously than they took the dietary laws. Conflicts arose about these matters, which were settled by the so called Council of Jerusalem. The decision was that no obedience to Mosaic law was required, except for four things: abstinence from idol pollution, from blood, from things strangled, and from fornication (porneia). None of these entailed homosexuality.

PASSAGE #3: 1 Corinthians 6:9

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals (= malakos arsenokoitai). . .

The word “homosexuals” translates two Greek words:

a) malakos = “soft”, very common Greek term, often has connotation of “licentious, lacking in self control”. Never used of gay people or homosexual acts in Greek literature. The Greeks did not think of homosexuals as “effeminate or soft”, but generally as manly. One of the guests in Plato’s Symposium speaks approvingly of the Athenian army founded on male-male homosexual relationships, because such relationships bring out the “virility” in men, and help to create a stronger army. Hence the fallacy of assuming that if a word to designate “effeminate” is used here, the reference must be to homosexuals. Indeed, the term malakos is often used of heterosexual acts. Generally interpreted by the church as referring to masturbation, until the modern era, when “homosexual” began to be the preferred translation/interpretation.

b) arsenokoitai = quite rare, meant “male prostitute” to St. Paul, and never meant homosexual until the 4th cent. St. Paul may have invented the word; it has not been found previous to him. The word literally means “a male who takes the active position in sexual intercourse” (and not “having sexual intercourse with a male”, as Greek dictionaries commonly have it). There is evidence from other sources, several centuries later, that this term meant a male prostitute, and did not mean homosexual (Aristides [early 2nd cent. A.D.] and Eusebius [265-339 A.D.]). Only late in the 4th century was the term used to mean “homosexual” and many other things, the term itself probably having considerable ambiguity.

PASSAGE #4: 1 Timothy 1:10

(. . .the law is laid down not for the just but for the lawless . . .) immoral persons, sodomites [arsenokoitais], kidnapers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine. . .
Again, the crucial term is arsenokoitais, and Boswell’s suggestion is that it should be translated as male prostitute.

PASSAGE #5: Romans 1:26 27

For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against [para] nature: And likewise, also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.

Three points: first, this is part of an argument, and functions as an analogy to something else. Paul’s point is that there was a time when monotheism was offered to or known by the Romans, but they rejected it (vv. 19-23). The present passage offers an analogy, and is not primarily concerned with a moral analysis of homosexuality.

Second point: the passage in question does not condemn homosexuals, but heterosexuals who have abandoned their commitments and true calling. The analogy is between those who are naturally inclined to monotheism, and those who are inclined sexually toward those of the opposite sex.

Third point: Paul refers to “natural use” and says these acts are “against nature”. Close textual study of Paul’s use of “nature” reveals that he did not have a natural law theory, and did not use “nature” in a moral sense, but only in the sense that nature referred to some “character of a group of persons” (thus: “Jews are Jews by nature”). The word translated as “against” is para. But para does not mean “in opposition to” (in which case kata would have been the word of choice), but rather “more than”, “in excess of”. The sense is that these acts are not contrary to nature, but unusual or unexpected in the natural order of things. There is no suggestion of a “violation of natural law.”

Several final notes:

1) Jesus’ comments on sexual mores are extremely few, especially in comparison with the frequency of his observations on such matters as wealth and demonic possession, which were largely ignored by later Christians. Indeed, while most Christians “read” Scripture liberally in interpreting comments about the wealthy getting into heaven, they read it like fundamentalists when interpreting comments about homosexuals, even presuming the obscure words used by St. Paul in fact referred to them. Consistency of interpretation and approach to Scripture on moral questions is extraordinarily important.

2) It is not true that Scripture has only negative messages about same sex relationships and friendships. There are extreme positive images of same sex relations in the O.T., which would often be quoted by “gay” spiritual writers in subsequent centuries: Saul and David, David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi. In the N.T., there is the unusual relation of Jesus and John.

Why Doesn’t God Answer My Prayers?

Chapel Talk, Bethany College, Wednesday, March 31, 1999

I begin with a reading from Matthew: 27:45-50.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? that is, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, This man is calling for Elijah. At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him. Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.

Why doesn’t God answer my prayers? What an easy topic! The question can be dispensed with very quickly. God does answer my prayers. Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you. The Bible says so. End of discussion.

My flippancy contains perfect theological truth, but remains emotionally and personally empty. It does not come close to persuading someone whose prayer is deeply felt, whose need is profound, and whose frustration at God’s silence threatens to erupt in agonized despair. Something else needs to be said than just interpreting verses from Scripture, as these bystanders do when hearing Jesus’ prayer.

There are, it must be said, various reasons why God does not answer our prayer. Some of these reasons are clearly not God’s problem, but ours.

In the first place, prayer may not be answered because the faith on which it rests is not genuine. I recall the agnostic Voltaire’s famous prayer: May God, if there is one, save my soul, if I have one. The only appropriate answer to this kind of prayer is laughter, and I am sure God chuckled along with Monsieur Voltaire, perhaps even longer than he.

In the second place, prayer may not be answered, because, while the faith on which it rests is genuine and real, the will to let the spirit carry out one’s faith in the rest of life is not there. I recall in this context the prayer of St. Augustine: O Lord give me chastity, but not yet.

In the third place, prayer may not be answered because it is designed to be heard by others, not by God. Jesus especially notes this in the Sermon on the Mount: Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. Jesus insists that true piety manifests itself in a sincere prayer that is done in secret outside the judgment of others. His point is not to discourage prayer with others; it is to discourage a form of prayer that is really about impressing others.  Our prayer is only genuine if it is for God. And in fact, that is not always the case. Styles of public praying sometimes get in the way; they sometimes become the vehicles for personal pride and self-righteousness.

How, then can we insure that our prayers will be answered?

Perhaps the best clue we have to how we should pray is the Lord’s Prayer. In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus prefaces this prayer with the words: Pray then in this way. We have often prayed the words that follow literally, forgetting that it was not just this prayer, but the manner of this prayer that Jesus was endorsing. What was the manner of this prayer?

First, we are to pray by acknowledging the absolute holiness of God’s name, the centrality of God’s claim over our lives. That claim implies that everything we want or need is in God’s hands, and that it is not functional to worry about anything. If I can truly pray “God will provide”, it is only because God’s holiness has already claimed me. But often, we are not at all sure that God will provide. We are like the Gentiles who Jesus says are the sort of people who worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” The Gentiles are thus not all those who are not Jews; they are all those who do not yet experience God’s providential care, but are dedicated instead to the human production of needless anxiety.

Immediately after the phrase “hallowed be thy name” comes “Thy kingdom come”. That phrase is the central mission of Jesus. And he contrasts the Gentiles who worry about food, drink, and clothing, with those who seek first the kingdom. This is the point at which I suspect many people’s understanding of prayer leaves off. For most, prayer is about what one does in one’s ongoing individual relation with God. But Jesus’ mission is not about how each relationship with God is individual (apologies to Kierkegaard). It is about the coming of the kingdom of God. And our prayer must always and centrally be as much about the coming of this Kingdom, as it is about God, and that is because the coming of the Kingdom is the meaning of the phrase “Thy will be done”.  In many cases, I suspect our prayer is not “heard by God” because it has nothing to do with the coming of his kingdom, but with another kingdom, my own. Too often the anger and the pain that we feel when God does not answer our prayer comes from the fact that praying is a form of getting control over our world, and God has not cooperated very well with this project. The Kingdom of Control, the Kingdom of My-World-on-My-Terms, is forever to be contrasted with the Kingdom of Heaven, which on earth and in heaven is the Kingdom of God’s will.

The difference in attitude between these two kingdoms comes out in a short parable recently passed on to me via e-mail by an alumnus. The parable goes like this:

A voyaging ship was wrecked during a storm at sea and only two of the men on it were able to swim to a small, desert-like island. The two survivors, not knowing what else to do, agreed that they had no other recourse but to pray to God. However, to find out whose prayer was more powerful, they agreed to divide the territory between them and stay on opposite sides of the island.

The first thing they prayed for was food. The next morning, the first man saw a fruit-bearing tree on his side of the island and he was able to eat its fruit. The other man’s parcel of land remained barren. After a week, the first man was lonely and he decided to pray for a wife. The next day, another ship was wrecked, and the only survivor was a woman who swam to his side of the island. On the other side of the island, the second man had nothing. Soon the first man prayed for a house, clothes, and more food. The next day, like magic, all of these were given to him. However, the second man still had nothing. Finally, the first man prayed for a ship, so that he and his wife could leave the island. In the morning, he found a ship docked at his side of the island. The first man boarded the ship and decided to leave the second man on the island. He considered the other man unworthy to receive God’s blessings since none of his prayers had been answered. As the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a voice from heaven booming, “Why are you leaving your companion on the island?” “My blessings are mine alone since I was the one who prayed for them”, the first man answered. “His prayers were all unanswered and so he does not deserve anything.” “You are mistaken!” the voice rebuked him. “He had only one prayer, which I answered faithfully. He prayed that all your prayers be answered!”

There is another way to put this. In the Kingdom of God, prayer is no longer mere words, however piously uttered, but a heart so much aflame with love that it cannot rest. Prayer is a vector, an arrow shot forth from the Spirit, if you will, that aims straight at the Christ one finds in the need, the despair, the loneliness, of those who have suffered. Prayer seeks God not just beyond the clouds, but through the body; not just in another realm, but through the Christ in all. Such prayer is more akin to a groaning of the Spirit, a groaning which St. Paul thought he heard all through creation. When we can no longer hear this groaning, it is because the spirit is not in us and there is no flame in our hearts. Prayer emanating from self-preoccupation cannot see God as all in all, as Paul says; the experience of God in such a deprived state is one of finding ourselves alone with the alone, as the philosopher Plotinus once said.

Prayer in the Kingdom and for the Kingdom is an outstretched hand: God’s hand outstretched to us before we ever pray; our hand outstretched to God’s; and our hand outstretched to every other hand in the kingdom. Prayer is always about all of us in Jesus and the spirit in relation to God, never simply about me and God.

Perhaps I can sum up what prayer is in two words: mystery and ecstasy.

In prayer, we encounter the mystery of God’s grace to all in the Kingdom. We pray for an elderly man’s recovery; he doesn’t recover, he dies. Our prayer, if it is genuine, and if it has ears to hear, begins to hear the suffering of others in the Kingdom, and begins to attend to their needs, their sorrow, their cries. God writes straight with crooked lines. The shortest distance between that point called me and that point called God includes an infinite number of other points called the kingdom of heaven. Prayer hallows us out for life in the kingdom. It helps us to become the instruments or answers to the prayers of others, and in doing so to hearken to the will of God.

The mystery is to be found in the fact that God’s answer is usually not all at once or complete, but partial and provisional and temporary. Prayer is never completed; it sets us on a journey through life with all those who do not have their daily bread, who have not been forgiven, whose sin is great.

Sometime just over 600 years ago, long about 1393, an English woman named Julian of Norwich, about whom little is known, wrote down the story of her lifetime spiritual struggle. She had had a revelation from Jesus perhaps twenty years earlier. One of the things that Jesus spoke to her was, as she says, “those sweet, cheering words, ‘I am the foundation of your praying’.’ She writes this after her long search: ‘From the time these things were first revealed I had often wanted to know what was our Lord’s meaning. It was more than fifteen years after that I was answered in my spirit’s understanding. “You would know our Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold on to this and you will know and understand love more and more. But you will not know or learn anything else–ever!” (Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Clifton Wolters, Penguin Books, pp. 211-212). We may say then that our prayers never seem to be heard when what we are looking for is some answer or other; but they are always answered when we realize that love is the only answer to our prayers that will be given or has ever been given.

It is difficult to bear this mystery; we need moments when the clouds part, moments to be reassured of God’s faithfulness, moments, if you will, of ecstasy. One important moment is in the sharing of bread and wine. But there are other moments as well. Just over a week ago, I ducked into the last hour of the dress rehearsal of Handel’s Messiah. It had been two years since I had heard the performance. And in the last chorus, a piece of music I have come to know well in the years I have sung the Messiah, I found one of those moments of prayerful ecstasy: Amen, repeated a thousand times, in a complex play of musical lines, that comes as close as anything perhaps to the sublime grandness of Jesus’ words in the Our Father: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Prayer ends in the ecstatic affirmation of the mystery of our life in the kingdom: So be it, Amen.

The prayer of Jesus on the cross, the prayer of one living in mystery and love, is ultimately answered by the prayer of ecstasy. I conclude with a reading from the Book of Revelation: Revelation 21: 1-5a:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Gene Bales

Some Notes on Capitalism and Inequality

Gene Bales

Capitalism is not one thing; it has been taken many different forms over time. I do not like talking about “capitalism” as though what Adam Smith talked about in the 18th century (England as the nation of shopkeepers) is the same thing we have today. There are historical connections and continuities, but not identity.
Capitalism has produced much good, both in mass consumer products, technology, and the rising standard of labor. None of that I would deny.
But it has also simultaneously increased inequality and that in the following respects:

1. First and most fundamentally the sheer growth of capital beyond labor income has been astronomical in recent decades. The distance between the 1% who live off the income derived from capital and the rest of humanity has grown to be very great, and has shown no sign of decline. Piketty’s statistical studies lend strong support to this.

2. Secondly, capitalism in its current international structure utilizes tax avoidance processes which robs nations of needed tax revenue and thus thrusts needs further on those less well-off to pay for them.

3. Third, capitalism demands that production aim at the lowest cost per item. This implies lowest quality of production, and it also implies the lowest possible wage. This has meant increasingly shipping jobs out of first world countries to countries where wages are lower and labor can be better exploited because of weaker government regulations. Those who make Nike tennis shoes in Asia are not just paid abominable wages; they also work under conditions that are often a threat to health.

4. Fourth, capitalism has no inner motive to limit the drive to profit so as to realize other ethical demands. It resists government intervention for this very reason, and it resists improving anything unless workers get fed up and either strike or quit. As long as labor is plentiful this is not too problematic. Capitalism has always sought to eliminate unions and the power of laborers because of the threat to profit. Thanks to labor, and not capitalism, we have a 40-hour work week and various other improvements.

5. Capitalism has intensively increased the inequality between poorer countries and wealthier ones by refusing to internalize the cost of pollution and degradation of water and natural resources. The lowest possible price leads inevitably to environmental disasters which disproportionately affect the poorer citizens of countries in South America, Africa, and Asia, among other continents. And in the U.S. as well: think Exxon-Valdez, and the BP disaster in the Gulf.

6. Capitalism today is largely a non-competitive environment, in which no one can enter the market place to compete and consumers have no serious choice in buying many products. Early capitalism was all about competition, but the entities competing were relatively small. As corporations and businesses grew exponentially in the 19thh and 20th century, anti-trust laws were instituted, but capitalists have been good at avoiding the consequences. Today, a given corporation may own sub-units manufacturing everything from plant food to autos to computers. This is far beyond traditional capitalism and its limits of size and scope. And all this means that the consumer and the laborer is at the worst possible disadvantage both in terms of working conditions, wages, benefits and the like.

7. Capitalism in the US. today has large eliminated the middle class. As more and more jobs are eliminated, the world economy may be getting better, but the gap between the rich and the poor in this country and in other developed countries is getting worse.

8. In short, capitalism has no moral conscience. Making the highest possible profits is what it’s all about. Some inequality is both inevitable and good in societies. But the kind of gargantuan inequality in wealth that capitalism has created today blocks serious environmental improvements, labor improvements around the world, and new products or services that might otherwise compete in a better market place.

9. One final issue has emerged: the need for some capitalists to begin to actively address attempts by government to regulate them. Thus some capitalists are now in the political business full-time, writing “ideal” laws for legislators—thereby eliminating the need to listen to ordinary citizens–, funneling money to candidates who espouse their concerns, and attempting to stop drives to increase voting in the U.S., since marginal voters are often more likely to be liberal than conservative. Modern capitalism is a thoroughly political phenomenon. It champions quiet government intervention—i.e., intervention to weaken government.

10. One consequence of modern capitalism in the U.S. is the redefinition of conservatism from moderate pragmatism to something close to libertarian anti-government philosophy. This is true across the political spectrum. Along with this has come a desire to abolish as many taxes as possible (this never reaches the point of disbanding the military, of course), and to insist that taxation is the greatest evil of all. But the abandonment of progressive taxation either increases the powerlessness of ordinary citizens, or it is compensated for other kind of regressive taxes that especially impact those at the bottom of the social class hierarchy. Those at the top ceased paying taxes a long time ago. Getting rid of capital gains tax is high on their list of noble imperatives.

Some Reflections on Medieval Catholic Theological Views of Embryology

I have just finished reading Aquinas on the Beginning and End of Human Life by Fabrizio Amerini (published by Harvard University Press, 2013).  I had long been somewhat familiar with Aquinas’ unusual views on abortion, and wanted to understand his perspective better.

The book was not easy going.  It was extraordinarily thorough in its treatment.  I will not delve into details, but I wanted to say something about the most general issues raised:

First, Aquinas, like many other early Christian theologians, did not believe that human life (human understood as having a rational soul) began at conception.  Neither did St. Augustine or quite a number of other theologians.  This is a bit surprising for most Catholics who assume that everyone has always agreed on when human life begins.  It is of interest to note that the movement to insist that a fully human soul is present at conception began with the rising popularity of the belief that Mary was immaculately conceived, and was cemented in Catholic thought when it was proclaimed a Catholic dogma in the mid-19th century.  It had nothing to do with science as it turned out.

Second, Aquinas’ views were not due to inadequate scientific information as people often assume.  His views were a consequence of his utilization of Aristotelian metaphysics, according to which the soul’s function is to inform a body, and without a body functioning in a certain way one does not have a soul of a certain kind.  There are vegetative souls, there are animal souls, and there are human souls.  In the development of the embryo, one kind of soul succeeds another.  What you cannot have is a rational soul in a body without the organs to do what the rational soul makes possible (i.e., a brain).  The theory that a soul does not inform the body, but merely inhabits it, is Platonist, and is dualistic.

Third, the rational soul was infused by God who creates it ex nihilo.  To think otherwise was to be a materialist of some kind.

The consequence of these lines of thought is that abortion in the earlier weeks of pregnancy may be homicide, but cannot be murder in the strict sense, because before the infusion of a rational soul there is no actual human being, and no potential human being, since the potency for having such a soul is entirely extrinsic to an animal or vegetative soul.

So here are a few consequences one might draw from Aquinas’ medieval perspective:

People who say that humans have an innate right to life that comes from God need to provide a bit of metaphysical explanation of what they mean by a “human soul”.

If they say there is no human soul and that “the human” is entirely defined by science (perhaps in terms of a genetic code or the like), then it is safe to say they espouse a materialistic view of the human.  And I would then raise the question whether the soul of a great ape, which is genetically very similar to ours, also bears with it a right, the violation of which would be murder.  If not, then we have a materialistic view resting on no coherent metaphysical premise.

A challenge especially to Aquinas, but also to many contemporary religious people, is how to create a coherent and persuasive account of the value of life that applies either to all life, or to just one kind of life (human).  The lack of a serious discussion of this vitiates much of the contemporary discussion about what is human and why the human is special.

I do not think it is contrary to the Christian faith to believe, as Aquinas and Augustine and many others did, that abortion in the early weeks (there is certainly disagreement about where to draw the line) is not murder and should not be treated as such under the law.  Aquinas did not think abortion was ever morally right, even when done in the early weeks.  But to say that x is morally wrong does not imply that x should be defined as murder and treated as such under the law.

Hating the Government

I am disturbed by the frequency of the “I hate the government” rhetoric of the Tea Party and others.  The original Tea Party hated the English government, but in response they did not become libertarians or anarchists.  They established a new government of their own, a government that would structure how things would happen and get done.  The government was “us”, and so it made no sense to “hate the government”, at least not in principle.  But there are good reasons not to take most of the Tea Party rhetoric seriously.  For one thing, conservatives in this country have always loved the government that goes to war, and the vast sums of money that are spent (whether the military actually wanted them or not) are approved with happy abandon.  This aspect of government is much loved.  The rub comes when government attempts to provide for the social welfare.  The usual thinking is that government “goes too far” when it attempts to alleviate poverty, protect human rights after birth, and regulate the dangers that come with the wide distribution of our modern technology (guns, chemicals, etc.).  Other governments in Europe can do all this more easily because they are not fighting wars everywhere on the planet.  

So I conclude that in fact all Americans love government, that government is only an enemy when it does things that people in the opposite political camp don’t approve of.

“Libertarian” politics is largely relative and non-absolute.

The only time I would fear a libertarian spirit altogether is when it turns into a philosophy of survivalism.  That is the end of government.  There are thousands of people who hate our government in that sense, and they are all around us.  I think it is important to be on our guard with respect to people who believe that local police and judges have no authority.  They have a tendency toward the will to power with the aid of as many guns as they can get hold of.  It is they, even more than the average member of the NRA, who are real dangers to society.