Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Protestant work ethic’

Christian Economics 101: Starve the Poor

In American Economy, American Society, Religion and Money on March 21, 2017 at 11:56 pm

I started university a bit later than most, only after I had already tried my hand at a couple of different careers. Retail management was my first full-time foray into the workplace, car sales my second. With that background, it made sense to me that I should be a business major, so I signed up for all of the usual courses required of the freshman BBA, confident that my experience in the real world would put me a step or two ahead of my classmates.

Only problem was – I found that business, as it’s taught at university, has very little connection to the real world.

Consider my first day in Economics 101. I’ll never forget the professor building up the fact that there were ten basic principles that formed the theoretical basis upon which everything else we were to study that semester would rely. After several minutes of stressing to us how important it was for us to know these principles, he presented a slide with the first one:

Number 1 – People always make rational and logical decisions.

Needless to say, I began to have my doubts almost immediately. Of course people make irrational and deluded decisions all the time, especially with money. A lot of what I heard in the classroom didn’t match up with my personal experience in the workplace. I mean, the business model for selling new Dodge cars in the late 80s pretty much depended on the fact that the customer wouldn’t make a logical decision.

Another professor fancied himself a Marxist; yet another was a supply-side disciple. About half of my classmates lacked the ability to write a coherent paragraph, or to support an opinion with facts (which must be common even at Wharton).

I learned that there are a lot of really dumb and dangerous ideas floating around, even at the top business schools. Some of these, like the aforementioned supply-side or ‘trickle-down’ economic theory have so infected conservative political thought that all the facts in the world can’t seem to cure them – Nobel prize-winners like Paul Krugman are just considered partisan.

But if you want to hear some really horrible economic ideas, instead of going to business school, you might want to visit your local church. In fact, I believe that ‘Christian Economics’ is the main reason the GOP is able to continue persuading working class voters to vote against their own economic interests.

Jesus and the money changers

Jesus beating up the bankers – not the poor.

Listen to pretty much any radio preacher or TV evangelist, or google ‘Bible economics’ and you’ll find that the church has a lot to say about what the American economy should look like – and it ain’t pretty. I’ve chosen sections from a website called Let God Be True as a good (bad?) example, not only because the site has a lot to say about work, taxes, and economics, but also because the views espoused would be pretty typical of what you’d hear Sunday morning if you attended church in a Red State. The view doesn’t so much seem to be that work proves us to be the elect of God – not pure Calvinism – but it’s clear that a ‘sluggard’ isn’t fulfilling his Christian duty.

You’ll really want to read quite a few pages of this site if you truly want to understand where GOP/Red State economic ideas come from – no, they do NOT actually come from economics classes or the study of economic data (more on that in my next post).

Take for example the commentary for Proverbs 6. Jesus Christ is presented as the “ultimate self-starter”. Good men save their money “by the conviction of the truth God revealed to them”. “Sluggards and spendthrifts” should be starved. That’s right, people who won’t work or who waste money should be starved.

But the writer really gets going at Proverbs 13. Here’s an excerpt, scriptural references omitted for ease of reading:

Lazy people want stuff. They envy and resent the things of workers. They have many excuses why others have more than they have. They will not put in the work to get things. Instead, they whine about discrimination, luck, favoritism, etc.!

They covet much, but they cannot get their lazy backsides out of bed to get those things. They will not even unfold their arms to put food in their mouths! Work frustrates them, and they cannot figure out simple means of getting ahead. When success falls in their laps, they cannot get it in the bank!

They need a bigger house, but they turn down offered overtime. They want a nicer car, but it is more fun to play basketball than take that side job.

Basketball?!? Why not playing golf or going to NASCAR races? Am I wrong to think there’s a bit of racism here? The writer continues (this time, without even bothering to reference particular scriptures):

A sluggard is a lazy person. A sluggard goes to bed late, uses the snooze button, sleeps in late, is grouchy until noon, complains about his job, dresses sloppily, arrives late, moves slowly, slouches, is often still with hands in pockets or arms folded, would rather talk than work, takes frequent breaks, complains about difficult tasks, stands around unless forced to action, never asks for the next assignment, looks for shortcuts, leaves early, makes fun of hard workers, and is always talking about his last or next vacation.

There are pages of this stuff. Again, the clear, scriptural antidote to this behavior is – you guessed it – starve the bastards! Note that this all assumes that there is indeed work to be had – an assumption that may already be untrue for some groups of workers, and will certainly be untrue for many more in the future.

But notice how this feeds into our current political debates – even as I write this, the GOP has inserted language into their healthcare bill meant to appease conservatives, such as stipulations that the able-bodied must work to qualify, and that the poor receive tax deductions instead of tax credits (to keep from giving anyone a hand-out).

And remember when Tea-Partiers cheered at the hypothetical 30 year old dying because he didn’t have healthcare?

Make no mistake about it – conservative Christians aren’t really worried about deficits, or that healthcare will cost too much, or that taxing the wealthy will hurt job creation. No, not at all. They think that when government takes care of the poor by taxing the rich a bit more that it frustrates the divine will. God has rewarded the rich (contrary to just about everything Jesus ever said) and to take even a small amount from them is to interfere with God’s laws of economics. This is what made President Obama the devil in their eyes – because of course we all know who works to destroy God’s plan – Satan!

The rich of course just don’t want to pay more in taxes – politicians are expensive, don’t you know, and you’ve got to buy a lot of them if you want to keep the working man in his place. Don’t believe it when you hear conservative politicians say, “we’d like to do it – we just can’t as a country afford it”.

The GOP are philosophically opposed to helping the poor, and believe they are doing God’s work. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.

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Enter the Shaman

In American Economy, American Society, Religion and Money on March 17, 2017 at 6:01 pm

I’m spending a lot of time talking about economics in these recent posts – partly due to the fact that this is the topic of much of my current reading. But partly because it is one of the most pertinent questions we face in the US and around the world today – should economic policy be progressive, giving more to those who have the least (the liberal view), should it be based on Biblical or traditional principles (the conservative view), or should economic policy be set by closely examining hard economic data (the rational/secular view)? In short, how we gear our economy says a lot about us as a nation. And due to what I see as an undeniable influence of ‘theology’ over at least one party’s economic philosophy, it is certainly a topic within the scope of this blog.

Is hard work its own reward? From the very beginning of the Reformation through today, this is the economic message promoted by the Church – a message which is a key part of the economic agenda of today’s GOP conservatives, at least so far as it applies to those of us who work for a living. The ‘tough love’ doctrine we hear repeatedly from Republicans is that liberal policies de-incentivize work; if you don’t give someone a welfare check, they must go out and work at the local Wal-Mart or McDonald’s, no matter how lousy the work or pay. This eliminates slackers, and is not only good for them, but for society as a whole. Bible principles make it clear that people who don’t work shouldn’t eat (or have healthcare, education for their children, etc.)

Now let’s set aside my original question – what happens when technology eliminates even the low-level jobs like this (which, by the way, is already happening in Seoul. My last visit there, December 2016, McD’s have already replaced cashiers with computer terminals – just the beginning, I’m sure) – we’ll come back to it in a post or two. Notice again how scriptural interpretations of a ‘Biblical economy’ fit hand-in-glove with what benefits most the owners of the economy, which is employees working as hard as they can for as little pay and few benefits as possible. I agree with a comment on my earlier post, that it’s difficult to decide what’s the chicken and what’s the egg here – who influences whom the most, plutocrats or theocrats – but there’s little doubt that there is a mutual benefit to the relationship between the two, and the loser is you and me.

If I can digress a bit – I’m sure this relationship between those with economic authority and those with spiritual authority has been around for as long as we humans have organized ourselves into groups larger than extended families. It’s easy to imagine that the first leaders of human tribes were those individuals with physical prowess. Being able to run faster, throw a spear with greater accuracy and force, and fight off competing tribes would undeniably be rewarded with greater status – along with a bigger share of the hunt, a higher quality hut or tent, and access to more desirable mating partners. His power (and leaders in this sort were/are always men) might be limited in some ways – tribal traditions, filial concerns, etc., but it is safe to say that the earliest warrior-chiefs would have been the mightiest members of their tribes.

This ‘might makes right’ way of doing things explains 90% or more of our recorded history – most all of our political boundaries exist as they do today because someone was able (or not) to kick someone else’s butt off of a particular piece of property. Angles and Saxons ended up in the British Isles because Huns and Mongols mostly ran them out of their German homelands. The Swiss and their ancestors have inhabited the Alps for centuries because it has been a fairly easy territory to defend. And the manifest destiny of European Americans was largely fulfilled through ugly force – not because of any claims of ‘superior culture’. Bringing that up to our current times – no one runs a Microsoft operating system or buys a General Motors automobile because they make the best product – both companies put a lot of effort into stabbing competitors in the back or buying them out to get to where they are today.

Enter the ‘shaman’ – this is the beloved Joseph Campbell’s term for a person with religious power in a society. He (or she in this instance, although men have predominated here too) goes by a variety of names – mystic, guru, yogi, pastor, father, priest, nun, monk, to name a few, depending on the culture. While warriors and chiefs were also sometimes mystics, in most cases, the power of the shaman was a separate claim to power apart from physical prowess. One imagines that a spiritual leader is a personality type that could only come along as humans developed psychologically. This individual does not excel at the hunt or physical contests. Often, according to Campbell, there is a physical or psychological calamity in a person’s life that causes him to turn inward to his dreams and thoughts – he is horribly injured in a hunt but miraculously survives, is marked or disfigured in some way – or is not for some reason as terrified by omens such as comets or eclipses as others are. While he cannot throw a spear, he has dreams that seem to predict the future. These dreams put him in contact with the dead – Campbell and others postulate that the first primitive religions were based on the fact that people we love continue to exist in our dreams after they die – leading us to believe that they must still exist on some other plane.

There are entire college courses if not major areas of studies that go into these ideas in depth – well beyond my area of expertise. It’s not hard to see, however, that the warrior and the shaman would do better working together than in opposition. A chief who attacks an enemy and fails might lose his clout within the tribe, as well as his fine hut, wife – or even head. How convenient if a shaman can place the blame elsewhere. A shaman can be easily out-muscled by a warrior, so of course it’s in his self-interest to interpret dreams that reflect favorably on the chief – and well, you can put two and two together from this point. Over time, resources are increasingly taken from the tribe to provide more for the princes and priests. You, the modern day Christian, are comparatively lucky that your church wants only ten percent and your employer pays you wages that keep your head just slightly above water. In the first cities, the vast majority of people were serfs, while the elite built palaces and temples of such grandiosity that some remain to this day.

In my opinion, it is the ideas of the Enlightenment alone that keep this from being true today.

I’ve said all that to say this: religion does not make for good economic policy, nor does a warrior-like survival of the fittest. Logic would dictate that if I work harder or longer hours, I should be compensated in greater measure. This is not happening in the US today. Many jobs that used to be hourly have been turned into ‘management’ jobs as to escape paying overtime. We are once again becoming serfs – powerful corporations and religious beliefs controlling how much work we do, what kind of work we do, how we are payed for it, and pretty much every other factor that makes up our working life. And our shamans, our clergy, twist their own scriptures around to oppress the lower classes for the benefit of the rich.

I do not prove myself as one of the ‘elect’ by working harder for less. Work is NOT its own reward – money, security, and personal fulfillment are just rewards for our labor. The sooner we get the plutocrats and theocrats out of economic policy, the better.

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Exploit the Protestants

In American Economy, American Society, Religion and Money on March 13, 2017 at 8:04 pm

In my last post I talked about the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE), and asked what would happen to this concept if technology rendered 95% of us unemployable. The reason I use such a drastic number is 1) I’m not alone in believing this is a real possibility in the coming decades, and 2) I’m pretty sure I know the answer to the question if that number were more like 35% – the unemployed third of humanity would be demonized by the two-thirds able to somehow hang on to a job. Low moral character, unwillingness to work, looking for handouts – these would all be named as ’causes’ for unemployment, even with clear economic evidence to the contrary.

Why do we feel that work somehow equals virtue? I’m only just re-acquainting myself with Max Weber’s collection of essays, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the basic idea of the PWE. It is an idea as old as the Reformation itself, and it permeates American thinking about work to this day.

“Protestants, beginning with Martin Luther, reconceptualized worldly work as a duty which benefits both the individual and society as a whole. Thus, the Catholic idea of good works was transformed into an obligation to consistently work diligently as a sign of grace….the notion developed that it might be possible to discern that a person was elect (predestined) by observing their way of life. Hard work and frugality were thought to be two important consequences of being one of the elect. Protestants were thus attracted to these qualities and supposed to strive for reaching them.” (Wikipedia)

Weber says this is why Europe and America have the dominant economic position in the world today – the superior belief system caused them to work harder. Therefore, they worked for it and they deserve it. That’s an oversimplification for sure, but one probably a majority of Americans and everyone who voted for Donald Trump would ascribe to.  A recent example here.

It’s no surprise that these ideas spring from the 1500s, at a time when great economic changes were occurring, stressing the medieval hierarchies of lords, priests, and peasants. A Catholic peasant farmer had only to give his earthly lord and heavenly one what was due – fruits of his labor in exchange for subsistence and tenancy to the former, performance of sacraments in exchange for eternal life to the latter. The Protestant believer had to be ever-working and vigilant to prove himself part of the elect.


Notice how neatly this idea fits the demands of the workforce required by the Industrial Revolution. While farm work was done in seasons, with downtime in the heat of the day and during the long winters, cottage labor could be done year-round and by candlelight, and factories need never close. Is it accidental that a new religion would promote frugality and hard work as it’s own reward, at the exact same time factory owners needed laborers to work round-the-clock? Could it be – and I’m just postulating here – that the PWE was a way of maintaining the advantageous relationship (exploitation?) the aristocracy and clergy had enjoyed for centuries?

Now I know some of you are saying these beliefs are not constructs invented to keep the lower classes where they are, but instead are Biblical truths. My question to you would be – why wasn’t this the predominant Christian view for the first 1500 years? Isn’t it strange to you that a doctrine promoting the workaholic as ideal Christian comes around at precisely the time that the owners of the economy needed workaholics?

In America, the prevailing view is that hard work is its own reward. We tend to view our work as a contribution to the company we work for, and to society as a whole. Since we spend so much of our time focused on work, either doing it, preparing for it, or thinking about it – and because by nature we resist the idea that our lives are spent in exercises of futility – we see ourselves as key to our employer’s success. How could they ever make it without me? Look how much income I generate compared to what I’m paid! As Thoreau says in Walden, “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do….”

We unquestionably believe that working for a living is virtuous. We don’t like to think luck has played any role in what success we have – we are ‘blessed’ to have what we have – a word that has, much to my annoyance, replaced ‘lucky’ only in my lifetime.

But corporations and capitalists seldom look at labor the same way. Employees are expenses. They require ever increasing pay to keep up with inflation. They want paid vacations and perks. They get sick and old, and over time become less efficient. They require expensive insurance and need sick leave. Employers are ALWAYS looking for a way to employ fewer people – often through using technology to get more work out of fewer people, finding a way to employ those who are willing to work for less money and fewer benefits, or investing in computers and machines that can do the work without using human labor at all.

Perhaps Americans are the most productive workers in the world because of the PWE – but is that a good thing? Our productivity increases almost every year, but our compensation has remained stagnant for three decades. Why should we work harder for ever-diminishing returns? Are our leaders using our religious beliefs against us to enrich themselves at our expense?