The Idea of a Good Life

Leading Small

Ideas matter. The way we live is patterned by what we think. Ideas that are commonly accepted as “the way things are” merit our special attention, because seldom are they truly of the essence of things.

While I’ve previously written about the love of money in our culture, and the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest, the following excerpt from a December article by David Cloutier, in “Commonweal,” offers a somewhat new slant: our relentless pursuit of goods is social glue. In a fragmented society in which hierarchies have crumbled and authorities have been discredited, we are held together in consumption. What Cloutier doesn’t mention, is that this way of groping for cohesion leads, ironically, to more isolation.

The idea that unlimited acquisitiveness is a good thing, is an idea that leads to no good end. Among other ill effects, it produces a state of mind in the general population that enough is never enough– a state of mind that grinds people (depending on their temperament and social status) into either a neurotic busyness, or into a hopeless, listless despondency. Equating a good life with unlimited acquisitiveness is a bankrupt and bankrupting idea.

Modesty is one old-fashioned idea that needs lifted up anew.

In the excerpt below, you can substitute the word “Christian” wherever Cloutier writes “Catholic”:

But if many Catholics are more willing to admire someone like Dorothy Day than to follow her example, that is also partly because many of us have adapted to our country’s consumer culture—a culture in which affluence is morally innocent or even commendable. “More” is taken to be a universal aspiration, perhaps one of the few we are all supposed to share in our multicultural society. Everyone wants “a better life” or “the American dream” for their children. In The Unintended Reformation, Brad Gregory suggests that “the goods life” is the social glue uniting an otherwise “hyperpluralistic” society. Whatever else we may disagree about, we agree that if you can have nicer things, you should have nicer things. In such a culture, it is easy for Catholic Americans to forget their church’s teaching that our excess wealth must be directed to the common good rather than to private indulgence. We cling tenaciously to the ideology of happiness as the pursuit of limitless wealth, buying into what Fr. John A. Ryan called the “higher-standard-of-living fallacy.” Ryan insists that social reform requires us to “put away that false conception of life and values which permeates all classes of contemporary society, and which holds that right life consists in the indefinite expansion of material wants.”

via Sending the Wrong Signal | Commonweal Magazine.

Another Critique of Capitalism

David Simon

Five days ago, Pope Francis was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” just a few days after releasing the first major document of his papacy in which he criticized the economy of “exclusion and inequality.” Once again we say: “Pope, Yes!”

Relatedly, journalist and TV producer David Simon recently gave a speech at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. In his speech, Simon said that capitalism has “achieved its dominance without regard to a social compact, without being connected to any other metric for human progress.”

Both the pope and David Simon are simply pointing to the obvious chasm between the well-off and the poor, and asking: does this need to be?

Christianity has become a marginalized religion in North America. We might as well claim our spot on the margins, and join the pope (and David Simon, and others) in exposing the human cost of economic practices that separate people into winners and losers, and that increasingly make it difficult for those who have “lost” to have hope. As Paul Raushenbush has written, we who are part of the Jesus Movement would do this not because we are Marxists, but because we are followers of Jesus.

I recommend taking some time with Simon’s words. An excerpt and link follow below.

America is a country that is now utterly divided when it comes to its society, its economy, its politics. There are definitely two Americas. I live in one, on one block in Baltimore that is part of the viable America, the America that is connected to its own economy, where there is a plausible future for the people born into it. About 20 blocks away is another America entirely. It’s astonishing how little we have to do with each other, and yet we are living in such proximity….

via David Simon: ‘There are now two Americas. My country is a horror show’ | World news | The Observer.

Thursday Shopping

The Mall

Shopping at this time of year has become a ritual of our culture, with its own high holy day– Black Friday. Religion in the Balance was pleased to discover the continuing existence of “blue laws” that, in some places, restrict retail hours on Thanksgiving Day (article excerpt below). Might the continuing existence of “blue laws” mean that commerce has not yet won total victory and become the highest good, and sum total, of our public life together?

To hope that the answer to the above question is “yes,” is to accede to the idea that a government’s interest may not always coincide with economic interest. There’s money to be spent and money to be made, if it were legal for big stores to be open in Rhode Island on Thanksgiving– so why wouldn’t the government of the state of Rhode Island make it legal to do so? Because, hopefully, the government of Rhode Island maintains a definition of the common good that doesn’t end with the lazy-minded identification of the common good with what’s good for business. They’re not identical.

A time of rest, at least in Western culture, has its roots in the Jewish practice of sabbath. While this practice of sabbath was tied directly to the proper way of worshiping the God of Abraham, in a modern pluralistic society “blue laws” need no such justification– in fact, of course, they CANNOT have such a justification. In a modern pluralistic society, enforced periods of economic rest must have a secular, not a religious, purpose. The secular justification for “blue laws” is easy: a people will not govern themselves well for long, if their common life amounts to shopping (and football). It’s good for us to have laws that force us to take a break from consuming.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Shoppers won’t be lining up for Thanksgiving Day deals at stores in Rhode Island, Maine and Massachusetts. They can’t.

It’s the legacy of so-called “blue laws,” which prohibit large supermarkets, big box stores and department stores from opening on Thanksgiving. Some business groups complain, but many shoppers, workers and even retailers say they’re satisfied with a one-day reprieve from work and holiday shopping.

Some business groups complain it’s an unnecessary barrier during an era of 24-hour online shopping, and there have been some recent failed legislative attempts to change things. But many shoppers, workers and even retailers say they’re satisfied with the status quo: a one-day reprieve from work and holiday shopping.

“I shop all year. People need to be with their families on Thanksgiving,” said Debra Wall, of Pawtucket, R.I., who will remain quite happily at home Thursday, cooking a meal for 10.

The holiday shopping frenzy has crept deeper than ever into Thanksgiving this year. Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Staples will open on Thanksgiving for the first time. Toys R Us will open at 5 p.m., and Wal-Mart, already open 24 hours in many locations, will start holiday deals at 6 p.m., two hours earlier than last year. In recent years, some retail employees and their supporters have started online petitions to protest stores that open on Thanksgiving — but shoppers keep coming.

via Thanksgiving shopping? Not in states that ban it – U.S. News.

Income Inequality; Opportunity Inequality

In the preface to the 1996 version of this best-seller, the authors (including the recently deceased Robert Bellah) write this:

“We believe the degree of class difference today is wrong in the same sense that Lincoln believed slavery was wrong: it deprives millions of people the ability to participate fully in society and to realize themselves as individuals. This is the festering secret that Americans would rather not face. Many nations have persisted while divided into a small elite that lives in luxury and a large mass in various stages of insecurity and misery, but this nation, with the ideals and hopes of the last 220 years, cannot permanently so endure.”

 The classical justification for income inequality is that wealth in a society can support that society’s development of the arts, its pursuit of intellectual inquiry, and its investment in the future– as well as affording the holders of wealth the freedom to serve others. From that perspective, a person’s wealth is not just his alone, to be used for and at his pleasure, but rather is subject to a wider moral claim: his wealth has a social dimension and a social purpose. The classical understanding is that wealth has a special obligation to be used for the making of a humane and habitable society.

 Today in America, wealth is pursued as though it were a good in and of itself, and even more: as though the possession of it will ward off any ills, any vulnerabilities, any insecurities. Wealth is seen as the gateway to security. Do you want to be immune from the vicissitudes of life? The false promise is that wealth will protect us. Today in America, wealth is a false god.

 The cost of this idolatry is being paid two ways. The first payment is in the currency of anxiety. Because we have bought into the myth of the saving power of wealth so deeply, we are chronically worried about not having enough money, or about losing what we have. This is as true of multi-millionaires as it is of  those living from week to week. Further compounding this anxiety is that our social ethos– a social ethos that informally but powerfully assigns shame and honor– is calibrated (especially for men, I daresay) to dollar earnings. Honor goes to the seven-figure salary; shame to the unemployed.

 The second payment is in the currency of human fulfillment, as Bellah and his colleagues write in the preface, quoted above. Today in America, income inequality has become opportunity inequality– to a large extent because the moral claim that wealth should serve a wider, societal purpose has been all but extinguished. Today’s economic and political order is a carnival game: it looks enticing and simple enough to toss the ball into the milk can, but the game is subtly, almost imperceptibly, designed to be impossible to win. A vast amount of human energy is lost to the grind of making ends meet.