Monday, August 27, 2007

Working without benefits

I came across this article in Sojourners. It's worth taking a look at (though I think you have to sign up to see it, but don't worry it's free and worth the sign up because they have other great articles). The article is about how it sucks to be a worker in the US because so many jobs don't have benefits that are desperately needed, and it's taking it's toll on the family. There wasn't much in there that I hadn't already come across, but I was glad to see that a Christian based magazine was showing awareness and concern for this problem. Here's my favorite part:

"We need to think long and hard about what kind of economy we want to create for the next generation of workers. What are the basic standards that should be common to all jobs, not just the best jobs? At the very least, the United States should follow the lead of other advanced economies and provide paid time off for workers who are ill, have an ill family member, or need time to care for a new child. We should also ensure that safe, affordable, and enriching child care is available to every parent. We need to incorporate into our policymaking the recognition that those working in low-wage jobs may be unable to make ends meet and that their employers are not filling in the gaps with benefits."

Of course the other side of this discussion is what will happen to businesses, esp small ones, when the fringe costs (is that what they are?) go up. Perhaps it shouldn't be all on the business' shoulders? Some days I wish I was an economist so I'd have a better idea of what was really at stake here.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Potter problem and some philosophy to boot:

Two weeks ago a friend of mine gave me the first 5 Harry Potter books. I had yet to read any (or watch any of the movies), because it was just so trendy. I felt like reading them would be the equivalent to listening to N’Sync in the 7th grade. It was a matter of principle. It didn’t help that I’m not too keen on magic and the like. I try to avoid books/movies/shows that make magic look fun and cool and innocent. If you believe in the supernatural (which I openly admit that I do), then magic is nothing to take lightly. Those who do practice magic aren’t channeling positive forces (even if they think they are). If you remember my post on CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, I really believe that there are spiritual powers at war in this world. Any time you tap into a power not from God, well you can guess where I think it comes from. So I just never bothered to read the books. They were too trendy, and they make little kids think magic is cool (and I admit, after reading them, there have been several occasions where I’ve wished I had a wand to stupefy my students in swim lessons).

But even though I didn’t read them, I didn’t think they were any worse than every other secular book out there (unlike many other vocal Christians in the US that ardently boycott the series). A book without God is just that, a book without God. Of course there are wonderful books with God, and I love many of them (Narnia, Rings, etc). But that doesn’t mean that any book without God is bad to read just because He’s missing from it. Literary achievement isn’t limited to the pious, and there’s a lot you can learn (I know this is obvious) from those who don’t write from a religious perspective (see my Golden Compass post for one example). So I’ve decided to write about Harry Potter from my perspective, and I know many other Christians have already done this but I haven’t read a word of it because I didn’t want anything to be spoiled (so forgive me if I repeat what other thoughtful writers have already written, it isn’t intentional). And I think my discussion of the merits of Potter lends itself to a short discussion of whether we should introduce philosophy to children through their own literature (a subject I have never thought about myself, but have recently been introduced to by Professor Brighouse).

I don’t know if I’ll spoil the books for anyone, so don’t read this if you haven’t read them but plan too (though I don’t think I’ll give away too much, and I doubt there are many people left who haven’t read them yet).

The central plot in HP is one of a war between good and evil, a common enough story line. Voldemort, the evil antagonist, does a Satan slash Darth Vador move by moving to the dark side. His move was motivated by pride and a lust for power. Then you have Harry who is not extraordinary in himself, but rather becomes extraordinary by the combination of the love in his life and his willingness to do the right thing. In the end, love conquers all. Without love, you just can’t win, and you’re pretty miserable in the process. No amount of power can replace love. So minus the glorification of white magic (which, I suppose, is a powerful enough objection on its own, but I don’t think it outweighs the importance of the message in the books), the book does a good job of promoting the story of all time. Why do so many stories focus on the battle between good and evil? Why does love always seem to win out in the end? Why are the underdogs able to do extraordinary things? Well, you can guess what I have to say about that. Love wins because God is love. Evil is here because moral agents are prone to pride, and they have the choice to abandon God is they want. God’s love will win anyways, so those who embrace it (and those people tend to be the underdogs, those who need all the help they can get) also gain the power of His love. It’s a universal story because the battle is etched in our hearts. The God hole is there, the temptation to follow the route of pride is there, the love is there for the taking… The story can come in any shape or form, the characters may change, the setting may be different, but the conflict is the same.

The fact that so many stories have the same conflict speaks to the need that we have for God and His love. By reading secular novels (and going to secular movies and listening to secular songs) you witness humanity’s longing for it. I’ve always thought that sheltering yourself from the shouts of humanity for God is tantamount to ignoring God Himself. We need to listen to everyone else so we can begin to show them the love that we prize so dearly. A few years back some friends of mine and I decided to make a CD about God, but it would be filled with only secular songs. The songs we found spoke of love and redemption and second chances and the need to belong and be satisfied and have a purpose. The overwhelming cry of humanity is this very deep need for love, the unconditional and extraordinary kind. When I read Harry Potter, I hear this cry.

Well I was going to say more on that, but I fear I may just be repeating what other Christians have no doubt figured out already. So that’s all really. Not earth-shattering, but I thought it was worth saying again, as it’s an important lesson or us (believers) to learn.

Here’s where I was going to write about how HP and books like it lend themselves very nicely to discussing philosophy with children, but I think I’ll save that for a future post. Expect it soon enough.

More Egally Business

I was recently referred to this article by Arthur Brooks in the City Journal. In light of my obvious egalitarian convictions, the article voiced one of the most common objections I’ve encountered. Strickly speaking, the concern is that egalitarians are too focused on equality of income. This could very well be true, egallies of all varieties may be missing the point as much as everyone else. But, my sort of egalitarianism (and the sort that I’ve had the most exposure to) is not like this at all. Equality of income (or even, overall assets) is not only ridiculously hard to maintain without an absurd amount of interference into people’s lives, but it also doesn’t achieve the sort of equality that I think every person deserves (which I will explain below).

The article goes on to show how conservatives tend to be more optimistic about people’s opportunity to move upward economically and socially, whereas liberals tend to think people are stuck where they are. Well, there is truth on both ends. Of course there are many people who are gifted with the necessary market-skills that will allow for them to break free from their less advantaged roots, but not everyone has the right sort of talents to do so. If a person is born more charismatic, good looking, intelligent, etc –they can’t boast that they deserve to have been born so. They also can’t say that they themselves achieved any sort of feat by being lucky enough to live at a time when such traits are highly marketable. Not that hard work doesn’t come in at all, I believe it certainly does, but there are many people in the lower ranks of society who work very hard with the talents they have, but they don’t have what the market requires for them to rise. Is that their fault? No. The fact that there are many working poor is sad, but true. There are working poor. If you work 3 jobs but earn only a meager salary with no benefits, what else can be expected of you? The question isn’t whether there is the opportunity for some to rise, but whether all those who deserve to rise can do so. Why should the back breaking work of the custodian go unrewarded all because he wasn’t born 7’ tall with a great lay-up shot? It’s not about opportunity for the lucky few, but for those who really are contributing to society in a meaningful way (not that bball players don’t, but do they really contribute millions of dollars worth—seriously?).

This quote made me smile (being a former conservative, yet not a liberal –sort of disliking all sides –but with definite lefty tendencies):

“It is small wonder, then, that conservatives tend to be happier than liberals today. The 2004 GSS showed that 44 percent of people who identified themselves as “conservative” or extremely conservative” were “very happy” about their lives; only 25 percent of self-identified liberals or extreme liberals gave that response. Conservatives believe that they live in a more promising country than liberals do, and that makes them happier.”

Couldn’t this just mean that conservatives might be more ignorant of the situation of everyone else in society, and so they may be less worried about the overall situation? I certainly wouldn’t put it past them ;) . This, of course, followed the explanation of a study where liberals (rich ones) thought there was less mobility in the US than poor conservatives. Well, perhaps the happiness with what you’ve got isn’t so much a function of your political leanings, but more about other ideological sympathies. Growing up as a WASP, you are taught to be content with what you have, but to work very hard anyways. WASPs also tend to be conservative (and don’t usually run into much if any discrimination). If the right really has a monopoly over the religious sect, then I wouldn’t be surprised if they were a bit more optimistic about their situation in life. But, that’s just a hunch. Maybe they controlled for religion, who knows.

This quote (and objection) didn’t surprise me:

“And those left behind, it’s important to note, will almost certainly not become happier if we redistribute more income. Indeed, they will probably become less happy. Policies designed to lower economic inequality tend to change the incentives of both the haves and the have-nots in a way that particularly harms the have-nots. Reductions in the incentives to prosper mean fewer jobs created, less economic growth, less in tax revenues, and less charitable giving—all to the detriment of those left behind. And redistribution can, as the American
welfare system has shown, turn beneficiaries into demoralized long-term dependents. As Irving Kristol put it three years before the federal welfare reform of 1996, “The problem with our current welfare programs is not that they are costly—which they are—but that they have such perverse consequences for
people they are supposed to benefit."”

Of course if we try to mend our already shoddy system it won’t do much good. That’s because you can’t build a house on the sand. Maybe we just need to tear it down and start again, which means we may also mean that we need to be a bit more creative. Income equality won’t cut it (though making the inequality itself less stark certainly wouldn’t hurt). It’s about making equal opportunity for people to live a flourishing life. You needn’t make 100 grand a year to flourish. What do you need? Well that varies from person to person. But Nussbaum has some ideas (bodily freedom, health, development of the mind, meaningful relationships, etc). I think I would just need enough money to ensure decent living arrangements, food, clothes, etc and maybe a family and a job that challenges me and is interesting. I don't think equality of income is necessary to give everyone a shot at this, but I think everyone does deserve a shot at a worthwhile life (even if their talents aren’t very marketable). If you are willing to work and do your share, you should have this opportunity (though you could argue that work ethic itself isn’t something you deserve to have but that you have by chance –a combination of genes and how you were raised). Income isn’t the only thing we need, but maybe we need a more encompassing education (how to take care of yourself, emotional ed, resources for parents, etc) and better healthcare.

This is more in line with what I think about things (though I think Brooks is mistaken about how well conservative policies really promote the sort of opportunity I’m thinking of):

“A more accurate vision of America sees a land of both inequality and opportunity, in which hard work and perseverance are the keys to jumping from the ranks of the have-nots to those of the haves. If we can solve problems of
absolute deprivation, such as hunger and homelessness, then rewarding hard work will continue to serve as a positive stimulant to achievement. Redistribution and taxation, beyond what’s necessary to pay for key services, weaken America’s
willingness and ability to thrive. This vision promotes policies focused not on wiping out economic inequality, but rather on enhancing economic mobility. They include improving educational opportunities, aggressively addressing cultural
impediments to success, enhancing the fluidity of labor markets, searching for ways to include all citizens in America’s investing revolution, and protecting the climate of American entrepreneurship…Placidity about income inequality, and
opposition to income redistribution, are evidence of a light heart, not a hard one. If happiness is our goal, those who promote opportunity over economic equality have no apologies to make.”

Brooks is right, it’s not just about the money. It’s about so much more! So let’s get things going already…

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Where did all the egalitarians go?

This post has been in the works (or at least in my head) for quite some time. I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at two fairly familiar political philosophy ideologies (egalitarianism and libertarianism) and for me to show you what I think of them and how I believe they stand in relation to the Christian faith. To be perfectly honest, I only just recently became aware of the former ideology this past year, so I can only skim the surface of this discussion and am not at all qualified to have much of an opinion. But that's never stopped me before, so here it goes.

I'll start with a basic overview of the egalitarian perspective as I understand it. According to the Standford Encyclopedia, egally's favor "equality of some sort: People should get the same, or be treated the same, or be treated as equals, in some respect. Egalitarian doctrines tend to express the idea that all human persons are equal in fundamental worth or moral status." As far as the general attitude, who wouldn't be an egalitarian? Most people (at least as far as they'll admit to others) believe that all people are just as important as any other person, and that no race/religion/sex/sexual orientation/etc makes you less valuable as a person. So far, so good. In fact, this attitude is proclaimed quite prominently by Christ and his followers. We are all, according to Jesus, beloved children of God. Each one of us is dearly cared for and loved just as much as every other person, and we should treat each other with that in mind. Love thy neighbor as thyself, because thy neighbor is just as important and worthy of respect and love as you are.

Of course, this is a lovely attitude to have, but a hard one to live. What does an egalitarian government look like? What sorts of policies would it have? The common conception is that everyone would have equal income/wealth. But that's not necessarily the case, because equality of income wouldn't be enough, nor would it accurately reflect an equal treatment of all persons within a society. Income and wealth (as Rawls would say, 'conceived broadly as they must be') aren't important in and of themselves; they are only important in so far as they can achieve some greater good (for what use is a bunch of paper bills that are intrinsically worthless?). Sen would go the 'capabilities approach', where what you're looking at are people's actual capabilities to achieve certain functionings. His approach is rather interesting, but of course I don't have much time to go into it here. The point is, equality is not limited to equality of resources, but can (or should) include people's opportunity to live flourishing lives. That's the sort of equality that I want to take a look at.

For me, everyone has some sort of initial right (as much as possible) to have an equal shot at living a flourishing life (which can, and will inevitably, vary from person to person). Being born to different parents or a different race/sex/etc shouldn't damage or better one's shot at flourishing. That of course, brings in all sort of problems when it comes to our market place, education system, family policy, etc. The currant range of incomes, for example, is completely ridiculous. People should earn more for more time spent working, and their job pay should reflect either the need for people to work in that field (ie backbreaking, drudgery jobs should be high in the pay range because they suck and those that have to do them should be compensated accordingly) or the importance of the field itself. That also means that education should be equalized so parents can't buy their children into better schools and therefore better paying jobs. That may also mean that parenting itself should be more closely monitored or better parenting education set up so parents can learn how to do a better job of it (those who know me well know that I'm often tempted to say parents should have to get a license to have kids-- which I'm only half kidding about). I think natural talent (intelligence, beauty, etc) should only be rewarded in so far as they help better the lives of everyone, because who can say they deserved to be born smart or attractive?

In non-ideal theory, it's all much harder than that. But you get my drift. It's the attitude that I care about for right now. The details can be decided by smarter people later on. Now, it seems as though Christians have a good reason to be egallys. After all, we all are equal in God's eyes, so why shouldn't we also treat each other equally? Why aren't more of us tempted to follow the egalitarian trend? I believe there may be several reasons that hold many of us back. And these reasons have a lot to do with (or in common with) the libertarian field of thought.

The Stanford Encyclopedia tells us that "libertarianism holds that agents are, at least initially, full self-owners. Agents are (moral) full self-owners just in case they morally own themselves in just the same way that they can morally fully own inanimate objects." In other words, I am mine and my stuff is mine and I have the right do with me or my stuff what I so choose unless it interferes with you and your stuff. This thought is very tempting, because who doesn't have a complex about their stuff and control of it? You do your thing and I'll do mine and that'll be that. When I put it like that (admittedly biased -- explanatory anecdotes to follow), you may wonder what this has to do with Christianity. It doesn't seem very Christ-like, so why would a Christian be tempted to embrace it? Well, there's this whole doctrine of free will that comes into play. God put us here, many Christians believe, with free reign over the course of our lives. He thought it good (for whatever end He has in mind) to give us the latitude to do with our lives what we will, so why shouldn't we give each other that same latitude? Of course with that freedom comes the freedom to mess up other people's lives (whether directly or not), but that's the price we pay. If God can appeal to some higher good than comfort (at the cost of suffering for many), than why shouldn't we? (I'm stealing this question from a friend--thanks for asking it)

Well here's how I think that sort of thinking goes astray. God did give us freedom over our own lives, but He did so to give us the opportunity to choose the righteous life. That means, we have the opportunity (and He wants us to use it) to do good in this world. We are given our freedom not so that we will choose to cause suffering, but so that we will choose to love each other and bring comfort to each other. To take that a step further, if we have a government set up in such a way that we have enormous influence (at least, compared to our predecessors) over how it runs, then we should use our ability to choose to choose a system that will best reflect the attitude of Christ, one where all citizens are treated equal. Libertarians value freedom as a concept, but freedom to really live requires more than latitude to do what you can with what you've got, esp when what you've got with the status quo sucks. Real freedom requires the capability to reach goals, not just the legal right to do so. That requires a whole different playing field from the one we've got right now. You may ask: why can't helping others be on a voluntary basis, why should the government be able to coerce our help? Well, collective action is one thing. We can only do so much as individuals, and it's hard to organize on the same level that the government could. Besides, if the government did go the egally route, it would be because the people chose it. Jesus told us to help each other like we're all one big family, and leaving everyone alone to fend for themselves won't cut it.

There's another issue I have with the whole set-up of the libertarian philosophy and the Christian perspective. Self-ownership (and ownership in general) bothers me quite a bit. I don't deserve to be here. I don't deserve to live as long as I do. I don't deserve the abilities and circumstances I was born with and into. I don't own my body. All that I have is on loan, and it's all a gift. I'm supposed to do with what I have what I can until it's time to give it all back. I am a steward of my life and the "stuff" I have, and if I act like I own any of it then I won't be doing what I'm supposed to at all. Focusing on your rights and ownership and freedom to do what you want is all a very self-centered business. It's one we're quite prone to, and it's an attractive idea but it's not the right idea. We aren't our own, we are God's, and we are charged to take care of each other (even if we have to make sacrifices). Lay down our lives for each other-- that's the goal. It's tempting to say, like above, that if God lets us choose suffering then we should allow each other to choose suffering, but that's missing the whole point. My last post on Romans talked about that sort of attitude and how it doesn't make much sense. The gist was: all because our evildoing makes God look better (or makes people turn to him more), doesn't mean we should take that as license to do evil. We're still supposed to do the right thing, even if God can use our doing the wrong thing to further his plan. That might not make sense, and you might not see the connection with that and the libertarian attitude, so I'm sorry for not being able to better put into words my feelings on the matter.

That all being said, I'd like to leave here with some words of wisdom from my Pastor who gave a phenomenal (but challenging) message today. You can check it out here if you want (it's called "It's all mine"). The message was about Romans 12:3 which says, "Share with God's people who are in need." Sharing isn't a new concept, but it's so hard to do because we get so caught up in what's mine. So we looked at the parable in Matthew 25:14-on that talks about the master and the talents (probably 70lbs of silver, or the equivalent of an ordinary laborers wages for 20 yrs). The point is that the master gives his servants some of his money, and the servants are entrusted with it until he returns. The servants that take his money (notice, never their own money) and use it to make more for their master are considered faithful. The one who sits on the money and does nothing with what he's been entrusted with gets in trouble. We have to live like the first two servants, knowing that all that we've been given is never ours. We should use everything we have to give glory to our master, and when he returns he'll be pleased with us. It's never about what's mine, but what is his and how we use it for his purposes. Do I own myself? No. Do I have stewardship over myself and my "stuff" for the time being? Yes. So let me use what I've been given to follow Christ's command to love everyone in every way possible.

So where have all the egalitarians gone in our Churches? Why do we still care too much about our stuff and our lives and not other people? God is wondering the same thing...

(fyi, I don't think you have to be an egalitarian to be a Christ-follower, and you can still be a libertarian and be a Christ-follower, but I think it's important to remember the attitude we are supposed to take when we make these sorts of choices... and from my perspective the attitude of the egalitarian more closely aligns with Christ's message. But many other Christians may disagree, and my opinion is once again just that-- only my opinion and nothing more.)

**And as promised above, here are several anecdotes about my encounters with libertarians that have made me wary of them ever since. I thought it best to share my bias openly, because my opinion is obviously influenced by my real life experiences with libertarians and not just their ideology:

My first encounter with a real libby came in my discussion section for my contemporary moral issues class. The discussion was unproductive as it was because the section was loaded with business majors and no other philosophy students. While discussing surrogate motherhood (or some such topic), a fellow classmate volunteered that he disagreed with whatever stance we were talking about. When asked his reasons, he promptly replied that he was, in fact, a libertarian. When further asked how that affected his decision, he merely replied again that it was because he was a libertarian. End of story, no more discussion. You can imagine the thoughts that were reeling around my head after that display of willful ignorance.

My second encounter came when I met the heir to a rather large company. He was a very very wealthy white boy who stood to inherit more money than I'll probably earn in a lifetime. For him, being a libby was the "cool" and "trendy" way to be conservative economically without being thrown into the not-so-cool-for-20-somethings Republican camp. To be fair, he had every practical reason to be a libertarian, as that position would ensure that his large wealth and influence remained in tact. It's almost hard to blame him... other than the fact that if he weren't a white rich male he would hardly be so eager to preserve the status quo. So as you can imagine, I don't have much sympathy for the actual libertarians I've met (even if I have more for what their ideology actual says), because so far they've just been naive white boys with lots of money...

Friday, August 3, 2007

Thoughts on Romans

The other day I came across a passage in Romans that made me pause. Paul was describing a theological arguement that (it seems) was starting to gain force. With the early growth of the church, Christ's message of grace was turning people's worlds upside down. The ancient Jews lived by the Mosaic law, and the whole idea of salvation by faith was quite disturbing to many of them. In fact, it was so uncomfortable for them that even some of the new believers couldn't shake their need to prove themselves through strict adherence to the law. But the concept of grace is not easily grasped, especially when you have spent much of your life trying to earn God's favor. If grace covers everyone, even the worst law-breakers, then what good is it to try and live an upright life? Isn't grace a slap in the face to all the do-gooder-over-achieving types? Well yes, and it's supposed to be. Our depravity shows God's goodness more clearly. It's in the darkness that the light penetrates the deepest. But with this grace comes a dangerous line of thought, one that Paul addresses here:

"But if our unrighteousness brings out God's righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, 'If my falsehood enhances God's truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?' Why not say—as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—'Let us do evil that good may result"? Their condemnation is deserved." Romans 3:5-6

This passage stuck out because it seems like it's the reverse problem of evil argument. I didn't think that I'd seen anyone approach God's grace this way, but then I thought harder. This is an integral part of the faith vs. work debate. If our faith alone saves us, then what's the point of even trying to live a righteous life? But at the same time, if our works must save us, then how good is good enough for God? James tells us that faith and good works are not separate at all, the one without the other makes it dead. But anyways, the point is that I never thought the grace part was a problem. Today the big focus is whether or not a good and gracious God would even allow evil, but back then another question was whether a gracious God would be angry with evil at all (if it makes Him look better). Well, I'm at a loss. I just thought I'd pass that quandary along, because I've never seen it from that angle before. I mean, no one would have said that Hitler should get off easy because his depravity makes Mother Theresa look better (different times, I'm aware, but you get the idea). Who knew? The philosophical/theological problem du jour may seem kind of null tomorrow...

(Romans has proved a more interesting book than I thought, so maybe I'll have more later)