Saturday, January 17, 2015

A New Bottom Line

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 10, 2005

Do you have one of those silly, schmaltzy little songs stuck in your head? One that you picked up, ages ago, and which, for some reason, the brain just doesn’t want to let go of?
Well, I’ve got a good dozen (at least); and they pop up at the most inopportune times—harmlessly enough, usually.
I’ve got one that pops up every year around St. Patrick’s Day, which we celebrated not too long ago. I love to play Irish music on St. Patrick’s Day-- the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem; the Dubliners; the whole nine yards. But there’s one song that shakes the rafters up there at 98 Bassick Circle which isn’t on a tape or a cd; rather, it’s just stuck inside my head. Every year, on or about St. Patrick’s Day, I feel compelled to sing it, numerous times. It goes like this:
An American landed on Erin’s green isle;
He gazed on Killarney with rapturous smile.
“How can I buy it?” he said to his guide.
“I’ll tell you how,” with a smile he replied.
“How can you buy all the stars in the sky?
How can you buy two blue Irish eyes?
How can you purchase a fond mother’s smile?
How can you buy Killarney?”
As I said, it’s an absolutely silly little song—very schmaltzy, too. But, in its own gentle way, I think it hints at something deeper; it points, I think, toward a general malaise in the modern spirit—and in the American spirit in particular.
Some of us have grown weary—I know I have—of a social culture where the only values that seem to matter are economic ones. The ultimate truth of this society of ours is that there is only one “bottom line”—and that is an economic one. Everything, it seems—whether it is social policy or medical care or education or family life—is forced to conform to economic parameters. The only values placed upon the various aspects of life are those that can be written on price tags—and everything, it seems, is up for sale.
(If that song about Killarney was written today, rather than in an earlier, kinder and gentler era of capitalism, the American’s question of “How can I buy it?” might have been met with a quote of so many euros per square foot, or at least the website of an Irish real estate agent!)
But we know, in our souls, that there is something more to life than economics. As important as the work we do is, it should not be the only way we define our lives.
Now, there is much in this economic system of ours which is very impressive, indeed. The fall of Communism in eastern and central Europe and in the Soviet Union seems to have established clearly the superiority of an economic system based on private ownership and the free market, over one centrally controlled and run by the state.
In the course of researching one of my books on the fall of Communism, I came across a few statistics about farm production in Hungary which clearly illustrates this fact. (There aren’t many churches where you would be treated to statistics about farm production in Hungary, are there?) Here’s what I learned:
In December of 1956, as part of the re-Stalinization program following the Hungarian uprising, a new law was passed nationalizing (that is, putting under the control of the state) 95% of the country’s land. Five percent—a little more than an acre per person—was allowed to remain in private plots. Now, in just a few years, by 1960, these private plots (just 5% of the country’s land, remember) would produce half of all the meat in the country; they would produce 80% of the poultry; 90% of the eggs; 60% of the milk; 40% of the fruit; overall about half of the country’s agricultural production was coming from these small, private, unofficial, under-the-table private plots.
There is something about private ownership which stimulates productivity and creativity, and which encourages abundance. There is also clearly, it seems to me, a definite relationship between the free economic marketplace and political and social freedom; they seem to go hand in hand.
There is no longer any doubt that market economies can produce more goods and distribute them more efficiently than state-centralized economies can. Our economic system produces more stuff, and distributes it more efficiently, than any system in the world. (Go into any American supermarket, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.)
Whenever I kid myself that I’m “not very materialistic”, I just have to look around my study at home, or try to find something in the kitchen cabinets, and I get over that delusion pretty quickly. Material possessions can make our lives easier, and lift our spirits. But the clutter of having too many things can also stifle the flow of energy and block creativity-- not just in our personal lives, but in the life of a society, as well. Having too much is sometimes almost as bad as not having enough.
There are deeper questions involved here, as well. The example of the European Union has shown us that it doesn’t have to be a stark choice between economic prosperity and social and personal deprivation. Western Europeans, for instance, enjoy a standard of living quite comparable to ours (per capita income in the United States was about $32,000 last year; in France, it was about $ 30,000; in Germany, it was $ 32,600; in Norway, it was close to $ 38,000). Yet, while the average American worker gets two weeks paid vacation per year, the average throughout Europe is six weeks paid vacation per year, usually mandated by national law.
While the average American worker spends about 1900 hours per year at his or her job, the average worker in France spends about 1500 hours there—a difference of 400 hours per year. As Jeremy Rifkin tells us in his new book The European Dream (subtitled: How Europe’s Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream):
“The average American worker is now working ten weeks more a year than the average German worker, and four and half more weeks per year than the average British worker.” Indeed, we’re even working a week and a half more, on average, than the Japanese—and we know how “driven” they’re supposed to be!
“But isn’t that why we’re more productive—and why we have the stronger economy?” some will say. Such is another American myth of superiority. Currently, workers in twelve European countries—Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, Ireland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and Finland-- produce more per hour than their American counterparts. Even with their 35-hour work week and their six (or more) weeks of vacation per year, the average French worker produced
$ 39.39 per hour of output in 2002—or $ 3.02 more per hour than his or her American counterpart.
In the light of other economic indicators, our nation is falling farther and farther behind, as well—especially where those at the bottom end of the economic scale are concerned. The legal minimum wage in the United States is now about 39% of the average wage. In the European Union, it’s about 55% of the average wage. While 17% of Americans live in poverty—one out of every six people—the rate in Finland is 5%; in Sweden, it’s 6%; it’s 6.5% in Germany, and 7% in France.
The United States now ranks 24th among developed economies in income inequality-- the overall gap between rich and poor-- (only Russia and Mexico rank lower. While in capitalist Japan, the average CEO makes (about) 5 times more than the average worker... and in (capitalist) Germany (about) 20 times more... in this rich fortress, America, the average chief executive make 419 times more than the average worker in that same company...
“Where you really see the difference between the American and European approach to addressing inequalities and improving the quality of life of people is in family benefits,” Rifkin writes. The United States is one of just three industrialized countries in the world that does not mandate maternity leave; most Americans aren’t even eligible for unpaid family leave. In Europe, paid maternity leave extends from three to six months. In Sweden, new mothers get 63 weeks of paid leave, at three-quarters of her salary. In Germany, France, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and Spain, paid maternity leave is 100 percent of salary for at least three months.
As you well know, I am not an economist. I speak this morning as a minister—a man of faith—and as a citizen of the global village which we now inhabit together. My premise is that economics cannot be separated from faith, from spirituality, and that questions of where we should build the foundations for this Earth, our common home, cannot be divorced from compassion and justice. Even Adam Smith, the great hero of free market capitalism, began his career as a “moral philosopher”, which is what they used to call theologians in those days. The “Unseen Hand” which Smith saw as guiding the marketplace is, notably,capitalized in his writings—capital “U”; capital “H”. There was a Force bigger than you or I at work here, Smith believed.
But the religion which guided Smith (and which guides so many right wing fundamentalists and evangelicals today)—narrowly personal, deeply sentimentalized, radically individualized— has grown too small for this One World we share. The worldview of a mechanistic universe put forward by Newton is giving way to a more holistic, interrelated view ushered forth by Einstein. This changing vision—this paradigm shift—has ramifications for our economics and politics, as much as it does for our religion and spirituality.
The word “economics” comes from the Greek word for “to manage a household”. Economics is about “home management”. Indeed, the development of particular economic systems parallels how different eras of history define what is meant by “home”. The early Christians, for instance, saw their new home as the community created around their faith in the gospel of Christ. So, they sold their homes and shared their possessions and lived communally, apart from the rest of society. When, in the Fourth Century, Church and Empire became wedded together, the monastery came to symbolize the Christian ideal of “home”, and those who lived there sold their personal possessions as well, and the proceeds were used for work among the poor and for the good of the whole society. Then, in the Middle Ages, people began leaving their homes on the land in the countryside and moving to the cities, the lord/manor/serf system of feudalism collapsed, and gave rise to capitalism, and manufacturing moved out of the home and into larger and larger impersonal factories and mills. The result was a feeling of alienation—of not being at home any longer—a sense of separation between the worker and his work—and the alienation of those who worked from a sense of their own productivity, and creativity, and from their very humanity.
The new bottom line in this globalized, post-modern world is not how we can produce more and more, and plunder further and further the resources of our Mother, the Earth. The question is, rather, how we can distribute what we do produce more fairly and equitably.
The question is not how we can go on working more and more hours, producing more and more wealth for fewer and fewer people—but rather, how we can strike a balance between work and home and community. How can we create a society where the economic system considers not just “How much does it cost?” or “How much profit will it make?”—but a whole array of factors—especially human factors—in determining the true worth of something.
With the passing of John Paul II, much has been said in the media in recent days of the heroic role the Pope played in supporting the Solidarity movement in Poland, and helping to topple Communism in Eastern and central Europe.
The Pope’s role in this epic struggle ought not to be underestimated, and I believe it ranks as one of the truly heroic and inspiring efforts of our time. In John Paul II, the Communist authorities found a nemesis they could not co-opt or intimidate, or ultimately, defeat.
But to see John Paul II as only a critic of Communism—or as only a traditional, somewhat conservative man of faith—is to miss an important part of his teachings. For while the Pope loathed the Communist system, and saw firsthand its degrading effects upon a society, he was no unquestioning advocate of monopoly capitalism, either.
In his 1991 encyclical, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), John Paul wrote:
“…alienation—the loss of the authentic meaning of life—is a result in Western societies too… This happens in consumerism when people are ensnared in a web of false and superficial gratifications rather than being helped to experience their personhood in an authentic and concrete way.”
And, the Pope continues:
“Alienation is also found in work, when it is organized so as to insure maximum returns and profits with no concern whether the worker, through his own labor, grows or diminishes as a person.”
It is toward our growth as men and women—and as interdependent communities—that the new bottom line has to point.
“It’s important to have a home on this earth, and not just a dwelling place,” Vaclav Havel once wrote. “It’s important that human life not be reduced to stereotypes of production and consumption, but that it be open to all possibilities; it’s important that people not be a herd, manipulated and standardized by the choice of consumer goods and consumer… culture, whether this culture is offered to him by three giant competing capitalist networks, or a single giant noncompetitive socialist network. It is important, in short, that the superficial variety of one system, or the repulsive grayness of the other, not hide the same deep emptiness of a life devoid of meaning.”
The real bottom line in life is the meaning we find in these lives of ours.
If we live in a society which treats people as cogs in a machine—which routinely writes off whole sections of the population as redundant—which has decimated the fabric of family life and our civic culture in the name of greater profits—then that society has to change, if we are to be true of our deeper calling as spiritual and ethical human beings.
Lao Tzu, the ancient Taoist philosopher, wrote words which speak to our times:
When rich speculators prosper,
when farmers lose their land,
when government officials spend money
on weapons instead of cures;
when the upper class is extravagant and irresponsible,
while the poor have nowhere to turn—
all this is robbery and chaos.
It is not in keeping with the Great Circle of Life.
(To mix geometric images:) The great Circle of Life—that’s our real bottom line. Not resting until that Circle is full—and until the little circles of our lives are one with that Great Circle—that is our true calling in this life—our real work in this world.

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