Mike Rowe, Income Equality, Rerum Novarum, “the undeserving rich”, and the Craft of Work

Bear with me, please, because I’m unpacking a lot of stuff, and I’m not sure where I’m going with it, even as I begin.

Let’s start with this new channel here at Patheos, that is dedicated to dialogue on the philosophies and realities of faith and work. Not so much “faith in the workplace” — although that obviously is part of it — but more, how faith informs our thinking on labor and industry. The channel has been put together by an Evangelical crew, and covers lots of issues (a “sense of calling”), “Living our Labor”, etc), and if you’re looking for one piece that can give you a sense of the site, overall, I’d suggest this one, which riffs off of a Peggy Noonan column from around labor day, and asks, “How would Christianity influence the culture if Christians became known as the people who know why work is meaningful, and who have wisdom on how businesses and economic systems should run?”

That’s an excellent question, and I think there is worthwhile dialogue to be had from engaging it, but the Christian view of labor is not monolithic. If American labor has ridden successfully on the Calvinistic rails of “Industry! America! Labor! God!”, our evolving economy — which is much more service-and-information centric and less industrial than in the past — cannot help but force a refocus. Combine that with the fact that Protestants and Catholics still approach the idea of work and vocation differently, (and sometimes Catholics and other Catholics do, too) and that non-Christians and atheists have their own ideas, and you can see how the most well-intentioned site will need to welcome rigorous debate if it is to be more than a propaganda tool meant lift the spirits of the American worker.

That debate will come, I think, and it will be interesting to watch.

Tom McDonald is also writing about work today, but he is addressing the subject through the filters of Mike Rowe and Rerum Novarum:

Rerum Novarum [is] the rallying cry for a middle way between socialism and capitalism that calls for the rights of the individual to both the means and produce of their own labor. From this simple premise we get Distributism, in which the person–not the corporation or the government–is at the center of an understanding of work.

[...] I’ve been a carpet cleaner (it’s much harder than you think), janitor, lawn boy, TV/film production manager, and technical editor. Finding joy in cleaning someone else’s filth is a hard thing to do, but you know what? We did it. There was almost a grim humor in the face of grinding, ugly work. Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs discovered the same thing: people doing nasty work often are happy, well-adjusted people. Rowe suggests this is because they find a sense of accomplishment from their work:

So many “good” jobs these days don’t give you a sense of closure. For a lot of people in office work, the desk looks the same at 6 p.m. as it did at 6 a.m. How do you know when you are done? People I work with — hey, they got a dead deer in the road. They do their work and it’s gone. You got a ditch to put in. In the morning, it’s not there. In the evening, it is. People with dirty jobs live in a world of constant feedback. For better or worse, they always know how they’re doing. That matters.

Individual joy is a state of mind, but it’s certainly dependent upon the state of the body and its situation.

State of mind, state of body…and perhaps, to an extent, the state of the state. We are hearing a lot of rhetoric about “income inequality” and who deserves, or does not deserve to be “rich”. But are we even asking that question honestly? Does anyone “deserve” to be rich? Does anyone “deserve” to be poor? Is the corporate guy who makes a couple million a year, plus bonus, less deserving than the athlete who makes 10 million, plus whatever else he can get off of endorsements? Why do we think of the former as a greedy bad guy, and the latter as a glamorous testament to hard work, discipline and business acumen? Is it because we get to watch one man earn his millions and feel involved in his success? Didn’t both sorts have to work hard, and be disciplined, and possess a bit of acumen?

How does demonizing one or lionizing the other help a kid in a homeless shelter who hears that it’s bad to be rich, except sometimes, but who knows that none of the moralizing gasbags who talk about her plight have a clue as to the reality of her poverty, or that this kind of stable home life, with an intact family might be what she needs to feel rich beyond measure.

What is “income equality”, really? Is it a suggestion that all of us should make roughly the same income? Is it a movement against “wage slavery”? Do the people spouting rhetoric about income equality mean to endorse Milton Friedman’s notion of a guaranteed minimum income, which is a very interesting proposition we should perhaps be exploring, or are they (excuse my cynicism) simply seeking to foment division and envy in time for another election (which comes right after they summer in the Hamptons?)

I do know that life is better when we have meaningful work, that “the laborer is worthy of his wages” and that the way we think about work, wages and sustenance, not just materially but spiritually, must enter into any serious debate about income economics, or else, as the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King warned, we are (like the rich man in the parable) dead long before the reapers calls:

Even if he had not died physically, he was already dead spiritually. . . He died when he failed to keep a line of distinction between the means by which he lived and the ends for which he lived and when he failed to recognize his dependence on others and on God.

We are all gifted in different ways, and the ability to hone one’s craft enough to make a living at it, matters. I wonder if our current, and dire economic/employment situation won’t end up creating a generation of new, modest entrepreneurs — people who, faced with a dearth of created jobs, will decide to stop following the drummed-in social cues (“go to the best college, get the best spot working for someone else”) and instead look within to see what they have to offer, of themselves. We might see “careers” pursued in the “global market” put aside for something smaller — cottage industries started, or small services offered, by men and women who ply their craft or trade locally — and people content to earn “enough”, living without the rat race or the material prizes hawked by Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley. In a way, that will almost be a throwback to the past, when dreams were smaller, and sufficient unto the day was the evil thereof.

It sounds very freeing, doesn’t it?

I do not know where, between capitalism and communism, resides the sweet-spot of perfect economic justice, but I know this: none of us have to be rich, but all of us need to work, and find both sustenance and meaning within the work we are called to:

By the curb, toward the edge of the flagging,
A knife-grinder works at his wheel, sharpening a great knife;
Bending over, he carefully holds it to the stone—by foot and knee,
With measur’d tread, he turns rapidly—As he presses with light but firm hand,
Forth issue, then, in copious golden jets,
Sparkles from the wheel.
– Walt Whitman “Sparkles from the Wheel”

Hope sparkles from the wheel, and all possibility is contained therein. And the man who can sharpen his own knife, and teach his children that craft, will never be helpless or hungry or cast aside as worthless. He will, therefore, be at peace, and so will his house, and columnists will write about it in wonder.

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  • KyPerson

    I am 63 and technically could retire. Lately, there have been lots of people asking me why I don’t retire. Well, it’s because I don’t want to. I enjoy working. I like getting out and doing something. I suppose it’s in my genes, my grandfather started his own business and worked till he was 93. My father took a part time job after he retired and worked till he was 90. He’d still be working if he hadn’t had a stroke. I find vacations stressful and am always happy to get back to work. If and when I do retire, I plan to ask Father if I could become a communion helper and take communion to people in nursing homes.

  • Andy

    My gut says that some of this disconnect about work/labor and spirituality and being with one another began with the advent of the ubiquitous internet. With the internet we are free to stay in our cocoons and not be forced to interact with one-another in a face-to-face way – we are freed from seeing how other people live and are impacted by our actions. We rely on the faceless/nameless nature of the internet and electronic instantaneous connections to people like us to shape our views.
    As i recall, and memory is a fickle item, I knew much more about the world around me, could see the impact my actions had, and saw the value of my work when I was not as electronically connected. We no longer have to look to priests/pastors to advise/admonish us. I can find what I want to hear to make my life complete on the internet.
    I am not a Luddite. But I am starting to consider the damage that our information super highway has done to our social conscience, our local social networks and to our political and economic spheres as well.
    Thanks for an interesting set of comments – you made me think

  • PW

    I think sometimes people, who are not in the same position of many of today’s working class workers, have no notion of work — and thus you can’t comment on it.

    Management decides that you will not only have to jump through the hoops of endless “living the lifestyle”, “living the Company way” junk; the savings plans and credit that’s marked specifically at you so you’re buying from the company store as much as possible, and on top of it they dock your hours and tell you (with a big,toothy smile) “now your family can qualify for welfare programs!”, like they are doing you a favor; oh, and if you have a family with kids…better kiss that promotion goodbye (because you have kids, and thus are not completely committed to the Company X “family”). Then there’s also the fact that if you don’t completely give yourself over to your new “family” and live their vacant-eyed, fake dolphin grinning “lifestyle” you’re going to be a marked person — someone they’ll love to get out of there…no matter how good a worker you are.
    Oh, and hard work, ingenuity, inventiveness? Ha, ha, ha! That’s funny — that isn’t wanted in workers.

    So, when people, who haven’t had to deal with this new world of work, start talking about finding joy in work, and how the rich guy who owns that company yadda yadda…well, excuse me for asking but: how is one supposed to find joy and satisfaction in that? the work isn’t the problem, now is it? and why shouldn’t people who have to put up with that be just a teeny bit resentful of the big boys and girls at the top? and why should they also not be just more than a bit angry at people who talk to them about the “joy and fulfillment of work”? Seems like some religious folks should probably re-read Animal Farm…I don’t think you want to be that crow…

  • PW

    And that, by the way, is what I think Pope Francis, was getting at.
    Yeah, sure the owners of a company deserve some recompense for the fruits of their labor. However, they also have an obligation to their workers to treat them square. If that means the owner has to forego some nice things in life to ensure the workers at least get some of the necessities of life ( if the choice comes down to the owner getting an in-ground pool or cutting his/her workers’ hours the choice is pretty obvious), then, well, that’s fair distribution, right? Including allowing them to have a life (and mind) outside of their work — just let them do their jobs and pay them for the fruits of their labor, no more “lifestyle” junk, no more telling them “now you can apply for welfare” while barking about the Company X “family”.

  • Marie Bernadette

    This is so well-written, non-inflammatory, and just gosh darn REASONABLE that I’m having trouble believing I actually found it on the Internet. ::applause::

  • Kristen in dallas

    Is a person who’s work is athletic more or less worthy than a person who’s work is generating and/or marketing ideas?… I can’t really say. However, I’d suspect that when most people refer to a class of “undeserving rich” the idea focuses on the type of person who makes their money through sinful means (whether or not we classify it as “work” is irrelevant). A slave trader or a jewel theif who hones his or her craft is in a sense “undeserving” of the riches they accumulate because they are profiting from something they had no rights to in the first place. Legally we permit usary… but morally it is a sin. (Same could be said for pornagraphy). Are the people who make their millions through the exploitation of interest rates (or human weakness) deserving of those millions? I think that’s the question more people have in mind when they talk about income inequality. I’m not a socialist… I believe in private property and the ability to work and accumulate wealth. However, I’m also of the mind that if that wealth is accumulated through deception, coercion, brutality or exploitation, that its transfer was never really valid in the first place

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    I am put in mind of this poem, by Robert Service:

  • Lynn Perrizo

    Be joyful in all things. When I focus on myself, on what I think I’m worth, on what I think I’m owed, I lose the ability to find joy in anything. I believe we think to highly of ourselves. I am, after all, nothing but a miserable sinner, saved by grace. If Jesus could leave the comforts of heaven to join this earthly mess to save me…well that says it all.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I have to smirk every time someone proposes a “middle way” between socialism and capitalism. There has never been nor ever will be a pure capitalism. We are in a middle way now. Just look at all the government support there is for people and the taxation that goes with it to fund it. Everyone is always unhappy with reality and has to day dream. Coming up with utopias is an everlasting human endeavor.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    May I ask what exactly isn’t “square” for workers? Work is down to 8 hrs a day or less in some places, most provide health insurance, worker’s compensation, equal rights laws , worker’s compensation, unemployment benefits, time off for sick and vacation and maternity, training, educational benefits, and so on. What eactly isn’t fair?

  • montanajack1948

    Thank you for a column containing much wisdom and for providing the basis for further discussion: the nature and value of work is an essential topic. My only quibble is that, to my knowledge, there is no discussion of or movement on behalf of “income equality”–rather, there is much concern about growing, historically extreme, and potentially disruptive “income inequality”. To call for a reduction in that trend is not at all the same as suggesting a world in which “all of us should make roughly the same income”. When 85 individuals combined possess as much wealth (according to a just-released study) as 3 billion other individuals combined: I think the specter of egalitarian leveling is the least of our worries.

  • Steve

    Distributism really does interest me, although economics is basically voodoo to me, but I have a big reservation about it. Has it ever actually been tested? I’ve never heard of a distributist society before, how can we know it wouldn’t crash and burn if it’s an untested theory?

  • Yonah

    I challenge, the typical Western, ego-centric perspective of work. Not that ego would ever be absent from the equation, but there is another matter: The work of work…the question of what the work is for. If for a common good, would there not then be what the ego desires in satisfaction…as a by product? Is this not the role of a parent engaged in work for the benefit of family?

    In Europe today, there is a resurrgence in Marxist thought. I call for it in North Amreica as well. The American Dream should end, and folk wake up. In this system, if one has freedom, it is based on another’s slavery. If “meaningful” work is tied to purely personal emotive happiness, what is new or special about that?

    The Mayor of New York today made it clear that he cannot be bought off from his previous stated intention to flat out tax the rich substiantially to fund pre-school education. He flat out is set to redistribute. Let that work begin and widen. Western religious leadership ought be just that: leaders in redistrubution by decorporatizing themselves. For what moral defense is there, in this very moment, for such “religious” not to be enacting the vision of Morris West’s “The Shoes of the Fisherman”?

  • roflmao

    Socialism is not against private property. You are confusing the communist ideal of publicly owned economic development.

  • Kelley

    The social stigma of poverty in our culture is complex and deeply rooted. The belief of worthy vs. unworthy poor has a long history.

    I have found that when I speak of social issues, Catholics automatically seem to think I’m speaking of corporal works of mercy, which I am to some degree, but really I’m speaking about the spiritual works of mercy. We need to raise awareness and challenge systems of thought. If someone walks out of Mass and sees a person who is homeless sitting on the corner and thinks “lazy, crazy, moocher, taker, etc.” there is a huge disconnect! It’s very American to think that way, but it’s not Catholic. Yes, our culture is experiencing material poverty, but that’s just a symptom of it being crippled by spiritual poverty. It’s directly related.

    Apparently this isn’t a popular subject (particularly about those deemed to be unworthy poor) and we have bought into the concept of blaming the poor and outsourcing charity to organizations and the criminalization of poverty…. without considering the impact of social stigma on policy, let alone just seeing the humanity of others. The reality is that if one assesses the sign of the times, this is what we are facing. The belief of worthy vs. unworthy poor is still very prevalent in our culture.

    There is interesting research out there… http://www.nationofchange.org/utah-ending-homelessness-giving-people-homes-1390056183

    Research has shown the Housing First model to be extremely effective for ending homelessness. We have adopted that model on a national level. The problem in most areas is…. they just aren’t doing it. The places that are doing it are finding that it works. It’s MUCH more cost effective and humane. But the social stigma of poverty and the concept of “givers & takers” in our culture is crippling our nation. Hence the importance of the Church speaking out about this.

    When homelessness and poverty are criminalized they are wasting your tax dollars and perpetuating the issue rather than working to address it. That’s why we have the highest incarceration rate in the world.

  • Frank

    Very interesting discussion. I hope you pursue it further. A few responses:

    –The public debate isn’t about “income equality”; no one is proposing economic egalitarianism. The debate is about “income inequality” — a situation where millions of Americans can’t make ends meet working as hard as they can at jobs with low wages, limited hours, and few benefits, while simultaneously the rich get ever richer by manipulating the political and financial systems without contributing much to the common good. So this really isn’t a question of why some rich people are “demonized” and others are not. Of course the wealth of athletes is a question that deserves more examination than it gets. But athletes are not the people who destroyed the world economy: Wall St. bankers, corporate heads, and their paid political servants did. These are the same folks whose actions have progressively eviscerated the American economy for the past thirty years.

    –Sadly, the public discussion will probably never move in the direction of “meaningful work.” As a society we seem to have given up on that, at least in what counts as “mainstream” forums. I’m glad you haven’t given up on it!

  • Dagnabbit_42


    One thing I wish folks — even you, Anchoress, whose writing I love and whose attitude is so frequently humble and reasonable — would make clearer, when citing words like “capitalism” and “communism,” is the role of, and the morality of, the use of force in such “isms.”

    The kinds of “capitalism” which its opponents decry are nearly always very different from the kinds of “capitalism” which its proponents extol.

    There is “crony capitalism” which is exemplified by the tendency of big business to support politicians who will in turn create regulatory environments which give unfair competitive advantages to the businesses of their supporters and suppress up-and-coming competitors.

    There is also “unbridled, amoral, greedy capitalism” which is exemplified by the slave trade, by sexual exploitation, by pornography, by the narcotics trade, by the manufacture of useless things badly made with demand stimulated by appealing to the prurient and baser instincts of buyers.

    And then there is the “free-market capitalism” of the textbook and of capitalism’s proponents, which does not exist unmixed anywhere in the world, in which persons honor one another’s basic dignity and free will by negotiating free exchange of goods and services in such a way that wealth is produced, pricing information is transmitted without distortion, and market “governance” is conducted in a distributed “multiprocessing” kind of way to meet needs as efficiently as it is possible to do in a fallen world. This kind of “capitalism” cannot coexist with fraud, and thus requires a law-and-order, contract-enforcing society as part of its supporting infrastructure.

    It also requires respect for the person as other and for his free decisions, and sees the “business-customer” relationships and the “employer-employee” relationships as subclasses of friendship and “brotherhood.” Thus it is only suited to societies in which the freedom and dignity of the individual and the value of interpersonal comity are lauded. If you don’t respect the other man’s freedom to choose either to trade with you, or with another, or to not trade at all, then there’s no reason not to point a gun at him and force him to trade…and that isn’t a “free” market. For these reasons, either a Judeo-Christian social morality, or something rather similar to it, is also required as part of the “supporting infrastructure” for this kind of capitalism.

    (I know you know all that, Anchoress. I’m writing for the benefit of others who might not.)

    At any rate, when you talk about a “middle way” between socialism and capitalism, I wonder which “capitalism” you have in mind?

    It seems to me that Distributivism is incompatible with the first “capitalism” (crony capitalism) inasmuch as it concentrates the wealth. The fact that 9 out of the 12 wealthiest counties in the U.S. are those immediately adjacent to Washington D.C. shows us that a lot of this “crony capitalism” dominates the business of our nation’s politicians these days. Chesterton said the problem with capitalism was not that there were too many capitalists, but too few; clearly crony capitalism is a kind of “incumbent protection” for businessmen: They succeed enough to be able to buy a Congressman, then they “pull up the ladder” behind themselves and prevent anyone else from knocking them off their perch.

    Distributivism as pure economics is not immediately incompatible with the “unbridled, greedy, amoral capitalism” of the slaver or pornographer. But clearly the Catholic roots of “Distributivism” are: Any Christian morality, if practiced sincerely, prevents a person from working in such industries.

    But I think that Distributivism probably REQUIRES, as part of its supporting infrastructure, the THIRD kind of capitalism, the “free market, men relate as brothers” kind advocated by American conservatives. You take a law-and-order society where contracts are enforced; people it with persons who adhere to Judeo-Christian values. Then you allow them the ability to trade freely within the limits of that which will not harm human dignity…which they personally would not choose to do, anyway. That gets you the strata upon which Distributivism can be built.

    After that, I suspect all you need is a stable currency, protected systems of partial ownership in businesses which even the poor can participate in, and some kind of system which encourages both almsgiving and entrepreneurial spirit, and I think maybe Distributivism bubbles up organically as an emergent phenomenon.

    Anchoress, I bring all this up because, if I am correct, then Distributivism is not a “middle way” between any of the “capitalisms” and socialism. It rather requires one of the capitalisms, but can’t get along with the other two.

    Any thoughts?

  • Dagnabbit_42

    Socialism is not, in its theoretical principles or at least its advertising copy, against private property.

    However, it does have some difficulties which make that observation mostly moot:

    1. The porous borders between the centrally-controlled and the uncontrolled parts of the economy prevent the planners from effectively regulating even those parts of the economy for which their just entitlement to regulate is most unquestioned. Thus their sphere of intervention must inevitably expand to prevent these uncontrolled aspects of the economy undermining their regulatory scheme. C.S.Lewis raised the issue that in Britain, in his lifetime, it was
    against the law for a man to grow a tree in his own backyard, chop it
    down with his own axe, fashion it into furniture grade lumber with his
    own tools, and build it into a bookshelf for his own use. The authority
    of the planners had advanced that far.

    2. The centralization of power is, itself, a draw to those most entranced with the use of power and least humble in self-assessing their own wisdom. The career manipulator or the person with despotic inclinations rises to the top of a socialist economy far more surely than under other systems, in proportion with the scope of compulsory influence that system has in the lives of the citizens. The mental habits of these persons, in turn, tends over time to amplify the inclination of the government to expand its scope (see point 1).

    As a consequence, socialism tends — in proportion to the purity with which it is implemented — to greatly circumscribe the ability of any person to use or dispose of his own property as he sees fit, even when the use or disposal of his choosing would not visibly do any harm to his neighbors.

    And if you can’t use or dispose of your own property without written prior authorization in triplicate, signed, notarized, sent in, sent back, queried, reviewed by the council, subjected to public inquiry, buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters…then in what sense can said property be meaningfully called “yours?”

  • Dagnabbit_42

    I think, Steve, that Distributism has been tested, in dribs and drabs, among persons of a certain common inclination. Distributism is what happens when each man views himself as an entrepreneur even as an employee; views his fellow employees as fellow entrepreneurs cooperating in a joint venture; freely moves from individual to collective economic action without fear of reprisal but accepting the economic risks of his own decisions, and trades freely with other individuals without enlisting the government to grant special advantage to his own sales and purchases.

    The difficulty, then, is not that Distributism doesn’t offer an attractive end-goal.

    The difficulty is how to arrive at that goal.

    Free-market capitalism and centrally-planned economics both offer particular policy prescriptions which outline the kind of legal systems required for them to exist. If a man introduces himself as a communist you know that he believes the government has just moral authority to forcibly confiscate every man’s property and put it into the hands of other men to be utilized for the state’s desired ends. If you meet a free-marketer, you know he denies the government has just moral authority to use guns in that fashion, but that it does have just moral authority to defend justly-gotten property rights and to enforce contracts.

    The difficulty with Distributism seems to be that some Distributists are willing to argue that the government has Communism-level authority to use compulsory force in order to bring about a system which produces the Distributist outcome; but other Distributists deny that government can morally exercise such authority.

    Those who think the government can and should do whatever it likes to bring about Distributism have a hard time explaining how it would not wind up being a centrally-planned autocracy, which we know in practice does not produce the Distributist outcome.

    And, those who think the government has only the same kind of just authority that free-marketers think it has have a hard time explaining what particular laws and policies they would put in place to cause the economy to organically produce a Distributist outcome, instead of a Greedy Unfettered-By-Morality kind of capitalism.

    So, Steve, I share your concern, but I’d phrase it differently. The Distributists give us a glorious vision of where they’d like to arrive, but no distinctive plan for getting there; and the plans and policies that some of them offer involve going down paths which have already been tried but which did not, in practice, lead us to the Distributists’ desired outcome.

    If we then eliminate those plans and policies because they don’t produce the intended outcome, we’re left with no plans at all. What then, from a policy perspective, IS Distributism?

    Nobody knows.

    It’s a bit like the “Underpants Gnomes” from South Park: The plan is:

    1. Get everyone to support Distributism as the desired goal;
    2. ????
    3. Distributism!

  • Lee Johnson

    There is no sweet spot between capitalism and communism, or between capitalism and socialism. Socialism and communism are not options, and have nothing to offer. When it comes to figuring out what’s best, we don’t need to look at them.

    There is only capitalism, and what kind of regulation and limits there can be on it, and whether or not the culture is capable of maintaining the regulations, fair trade and the rule of law. In other words, what matters more than anything is who we are.

    They make jokes about a nation of angels, but there is a less-extreme truth: A nation of people who voluntarily comply with the laws, who treat others fairly and expect to be treated fairly, and who are hard-working will build all-important social trust. And that social trust and hard work will add up.