Religion and Economics Don’t Mix

The phrase “fiscal cliff” was coined by Fed chairman Ben Bernanke to describe the expiration of certain stop-gap economic measures at the beginning of the new year (that being today.) I suspect that Bernanke now regrets the hell out of inventing the phrase. He forgot how much our media loves little pithy labels and looming disasters. “Fiscal cliff” has become the most overused phrase in politics.

My impression is that the “fiscal cliff” is an entirely political problem. Economists seem divided on how much harm we now face. The real issue seems to be the federal legislature, which is so politically divided – particularly within the Republican party – that no agreement can be reached.

But there is no problem so great or small that it cannot be spun into a morality tale about the failure of modern society. Enter Benjamin Wiker at the National Catholic Register, who wants to use our latest political fiasco as an example of the problems of secularism:

That we seem to be merrily rolling along toward a fiscal cliff is evident. Why is not as clear — at least not the deep why. Some of the depth of the problem can be plumbed out if we look at the relationship between secularism and our current morbid financial mess.

Ah yes, Catholicism and its “four levels of meaning” and Aristotelian philosophy. Does there really have to be a “deep why” behind every kind of political shenanigans?

It would be more persuasive if the philosophy weren’t always so self-serving:

To live in a secular world means that the only heaven, if there is to be one, will be on earth. And since there are no souls in a secular, materialist world, then the only goods we can get are bodily goods. Thus, we run on from the self-preservation of having sufficient food, clothing and shelter to seek superfluous pleasures, titillations, entertainments and luxuries.

Fair enough. The idea of “the good life” now means a high standard of living rather than a life lived in harmony with the will of God. But there’s a chicken and egg problem here: did our secularism result in a drive for affluence, of did our rising affluence result in secularism?

Furthermore, we live in a capitalist society where the desire for “superfluous pleasures, titillations, entertainments and luxuries” drives the economy. As someone once said, nevermind the ten commandments, our economy demands the right to covet freely and widely.

Wiker sees this as a modern problem:

But as we became more secular, things became more crass. Some began to argue that a vice, greed, was actually good, because the desire for wealth — especially if it is inordinate and all-consuming — will produce more wealth for oneself and others and spread technological, medicinal and practical benefits that enhance everyone’s life.

The problem is, the idea that “private vices are public benefits” comes from Bernard Mandeville, in the early 18th century. The idea that individual greed can produce common good is hardly a new thing.

Wiker goes on, turning the “fiscal cliff” into a standard conservative sermon against entitlements. You see, it’s our secularism that drives us to acquire more, which the government provides to us in the form of social security, medicare, etc.

He makes the dubious assertion that these entitlements go beyond a safety net. But even if we accept the argument that welfare programs go beyond what is necessary for a stable society, I just can’t make the jump from “superfluous pleasures, titillations” etc. to unemployment insurance. Welfare just ain’t sexy, and I don’t know the last time I met someone who got hot over foodstamps. You can make an argument against the social safety net, but this isn’t it.

And none of this provides any insight into the deadlock in congress. Why the repeal of the Bush tax-cuts is supposed to be a sign of decadent secularism isn’t obvious, nor does the opposition to a hike on the upper income tax-rates look like a spiritual position. Wiker really needs to find a better hook for his sermon.

Finally, I’d like to ask Wiker and other Catholics who see deep spiritual forces behind political and economic troubles about the “deep why” behind the various Vatican banking scandals. Does the current strife represent the encroachment of secularism? Did the 1980′s scandal, which required a bailout courtesy of the Knights of Columbus in decadent America, represent some moral failure on the part of the Vatican?

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  • vasaroti

    One could argue that entrenched political ideas become a form of religion, with the no new taxes pledge being exhibit A. There’s a idee fixe on the Right about “those people” who are unjustifiably collecting an extra $200. per month from Uncle Sugar, which makes them unwilling to look for a job. Meanwhile, Microsoft, Apple, Google and Hewlett-Packard have removed an estimated 96 billion from the US economy by keeping it offshore. The notion that hoarded money is creating jobs gets my vote for the big lie of 2012.

    “as we became more secular, things became more crass” – I seem to be observing the opposite effect in Europe and Scandinavia. Indeed, it’s the secular nanny-states that are preserving the empty churches for their beauty alone, along with the choirs and gardens once reserved for the pleasure of bishops. Is Wiker proposing that we become elegantly shabby and tastefully lacking in health care and housing? You first, pal.

  • Daedelus

    LOL. A bunch of old men in gold trimmed dresses and hats and living in lavish palaces lecturing us on the evils of “decadence”.

  • JohnMWhite

    Wicker seems to have the whole thing backwards. It is the greedy and the decadent who are responsible for the collapse of the economy and its continued struggles. They hoard their gold like Smaug, and they want vastly more than enough food and a few blurays. It is absolutely disgusting that every effort is made to blame the average person for the economic turmoil the world now faces, and more than a little ironic that Christians continually give this idea a lot of cover.

    There is a very obvious ‘why’ and it’s not very deep at all – greedy people got away with being greedy for far too long, and now they spend a fraction of their ill-gotten and vast wealth buying politicians and media talking heads to foist their failure on the rest of us. This is nothing to do with secularism or religion, and certainly nothing to do with people wanting to eat and stay warm and not be bored (how dare they?), it’s about the obscenely wealthy behaving obscenely.

  • Elemenope

    The first part of the article advances an argument that actually isn’t half-bad. Namely, that systems behave differently when subjected to conditions that differ from those under which they are designed. If a system was designed at a time when a society drew from two main sources of authority, and now that system is operating alongside only one of those sources of authority, one should expect difference in function, and appearance of dysfunction shouldn’t be all that surprising.

    It’s much like, in the study of International Relations, what changes when the norms of behavior that are established in a world that has two great powers dominating the scene are applied in a world that has only one great power. Do the same behaviors that led to stability still lead to stability, or do they, in the new condition, rather lead to instability? Predictable outcomes definitely become unpredictable under the new conditions, as the whole game-theoretical structures which assume two major actors make rather less sense when applied to situations that have only one. It’s a decent hypothesis, at least, that the same structure would yield wildly different, perhaps suboptimal, results when fundamental conditions change.

    And the specific claim isn’t even that crazy (though perhaps the assumed extremity of it is). One can think of different authorities as different resources for moral suasion. Since we all know different people are responsive to different arguments and feel beholden to different authorities, it stands to reason that if you deprive the field of argument of one of those resources, it becomes concomitantly more difficult to reach a generally desired result (i.e. people that aren’t so greedy that the expression of that greed is, on balance, to the detriment of the society in which they inhabit). One does not need to recognize or endorse the propriety or grounding of the authority to recognize that an authority has an effect, absent which some people who would otherwise have be responsive to that authority will act differently.

    Now, I’m not sure how he gets from there to “it’s the fault of the lavishness of the welfare state”, in a Catholic magazine no less. It smells like assuming the conclusion by excluding other obvious avenues of explanation; a state like the US could liquidate a carrier group or a few Seawolf subs or a fleet of fighter-bombers (all of which are, in themselves, stark physical embodiments of a pure mockery of Christian just war theory, much less Christian pacifism) and address its fiscal commitments to citizen goodies and entitlements. Why is overpreparedness for war not the core of the rot due to the absence of the Church? Where is that argument?

    Of course, this is one of the big reasons why we (even putatively believing societies, for the most part) left the church behind as an authority a while ago. Casuistry leads wherever you want it to lead. If a person can take a reasonable hypothesis about the replacement of theonomy with heteronomy and make it say whatever they like (it’s about the lavishness of the welfare state and not about overpreparedness for war), it’s not useful in a different way than the authority of the state, the polis, and the political discourse.

  • smrnda

    The problem when religious people (particularly Christians)talk about ‘greed’ is the same way they talk about ‘sin.’ ‘Sin’ is killing someone, or perhaps engaging in some harmless self-pleasuring and to many Christians, it’s all the same since sin isn’t bad because it hurts people, it’s bad because you break god’s rules. In their view of sin, by equating relatively benign actions with much more harmful ones, they trivialize the major offenses and blur the distinction between things that don’t cause harm and that do.

    It’s the same when they talk about ‘greed’ – apparently the minimum wage worker, who wishes they could afford say, a better winter coat or perhaps some kind of entertainment device, is ‘greedy’ and the CEO who moves jobs and money offshore to increase the values of numbers which represent his share of passive ownership are both ‘greedy’ and the hidden implication is that they are both equally greedy and have an equal need to repent. In this way the Christian mindset is unable to look at who is really responsible for social problems, since it would mean taking sides about who is in the right and who is in the wrong, rather than ‘well, we all offend god, now talk to the priest and give us some money.’

  • Raymond

    I have to shake my head each time I hear the RWNJ CONJOBS-serv-TURDS rail against Food Stamps, and the social safety net generally, cuz I’m from the poor and grew up leaving it behind, but I have to say, it really helped me to survive as I was only in my childhood with an absent Father who drove my Mom insane and into a state hospital for depression, leaving my sister and brother and me having to end up in orphanages, but before that the state run childcare system that really didn’t care very much and was run by a bunch of sadistic child molesting bastards, I really can’t say too many bad things about the orphanage run by the Methodist Church, whom twice each year throughout the state passed the collection plate around and provided for me and 263 other kids until high school graduation, and add to that the federal gov’t’s surplus cheese, butter, and even funds for other stuff, it’s as you say, “I just can’t make the jump from “superfluous pleasures, titillations” etc. to unemployment insurance. Welfare just ain’t sexy, and I don’t know the last time I met someone who got hot over foodstamps. You can make an argument against the social safety net, but this isn’t it.” How true.
    The first orphanage was run by the Pentecostal Holiness folks who loved to make you have church several times each day and to help save souls for Christ(FUCK, I was only age 8-10 and a half then and we didn’t get along as they would beat the shit out of me with one hand if I opposed praying, while telling me how much god loves me on the other, DAMN I hated that place, but a 3 month temporary wait became 2.5 years, so by the time I was in the Methodist Home I was really screwed up emotionally and mentally and had to unlearn so much religious nonsense.
    Don’t get me wrong my atheism is not a reaction, but a well considered position, and in spite of my ill-treatment at the Pentecostals hands, I am not bitter, I just know that being poor is not anyone’s choice. And these rightwingers who hate the safety net, are clueless, as they forget food stamps feeds people, and welfare helps put a temporary roof over your head for as long as you’re needy, and everyone I knew hated their having to rely on any kind of welfare or assistance. And it was not for any of them a permanent life, but was to tide one over temporary difficult times, as it was for me.
    I can only say the religious RWNJ who oppose the safety net, as Wiker seems to, are to me THE 4 horses asses of the Apocryphal-ists.
    Thank you for your time, and I love this site.