Living Wage, Dead Economy?

Eamonn Clark

My mind has been abuzz with economic theory lately. I’ve chosen to do my thesis on socialism, given the continual barrage of headlines about it back in the States.

It was with great interest then that I read an article at NCR about the proposal of one particular “fresh face” of the DNC about the so-called “living wage.” The author (no relation) gives a quick tour of the main encyclicals that touch on the problem, concluding that Catholics ought to be in favor of the “living wage” because it secures the right of the employee to live, so long as he is actually doing his fair share of work.

There is so much to unpack, some of which is hinted at in the NCR article. I just want to offer a few lines of inquiry… I’m happy to take critiques in the comments or through the contact tab. Maybe this economics novice is getting something egregiously wrong. (And no, disagreeing with the general idea of monetary policy doesn’t count… But I’m still happy to discuss Keynes and all that, and I have plenty to learn, so bring it on!)

If a worker is not making a living wage, how exactly is it that he continues to live? And if he can’t afford to secure his family, he is not only likely to be distracted and stressed while working, thus becoming less productive, but he will also not provide workers to the future workforce… Not enough money, fewer kids. This second point is part of the argument of Adam Smith at least, in The Wealth of Nations. It is actually usually in the best interests of employers to ensure that their employees are well-funded. His point about kids later entering the workforce may not be as evident an effect to employers in the mammoth economy of the USA, but in developing countries or even just small countries it is more clearly important. In the long-term, it is important in both large economies and in small ones… Just look at the panic in some corners of East Asia about declining birth rates: soon, there will be no workforce!

If the living wage is to be paid, who decides how much it is, and who enforces it? This is quite critical and calls attention to the principle of subsidiarity. Socialists of the American variety would typically argue it should be the federal government. (And off to the races we go with the “central planning” which Hayek warned about so ominously in The Road to Serfdom.) Maybe some would say the state government. Suppose we tried this – are the living expenses at all the same downtown as in uptown? In this neighborhood of downtown as that one? In the city or in the countryside? Etc., etc. No. So the smallest possible unit ought to decide, if there is to be a decision at all. Given the possibility of easy transit today, it is just not feasible for even the most proximate governments (i.e. the county, the city council, etc.) to make a good analysis that won’t inevitably leave many people stuck without the relative purchasing power that was desired for all, or won’t destroy jobs by making employment altogether too expensive to continue at the current quantity.

Taking for granted an appropriate determination of a living wage for some circumstance, what is the effect on the prices of goods? If we allow the market to continue untouched outside of wage-regulation, and wages go up, it seems quite obvious that, over time, prices will rise to match the augmentation of wages. So in the best case scenario, there is a fleeting moment of prosperity, and then we are back to normal. Best case. Worst case, all kinds of price ceilings are implemented to control the purchasing market, and we have set ourselves up for stagflation, where everybody loses. Production will plummet, jobs will be lost, and the money made from that “living wage” imposed from on high will become increasingly worthless.

Is it possible to exploit workers unfairly at all through low wages? This question is the natural rejoinder to the foregoing analysis, wherein I’ve implied that the market should basically be left to itself to decide wages. I return to Adam Smith: sometimes, employers hold the cards, mainly during times of economic bust, when there is low demand for workers. Other times, workers hold the cards, mainly during times of economic boom, when there is high demand for labor. Workers and employers should both be free to form natural unions among themselves to negotiate wages and terms of employment. Left to itself, the market tends to find the right spot which assures long-term stability to the economy, avoiding the pitfalls of monetary policy and other artificial constraints imposed by far-away bureaucratic geniuses. So, if a person is willing to work for a low wage, it is a fair market price. Given all this, it is still possible to take unfair advantage of a worker’s desperation for income. (Something similar would hold for lending at interest, but we won’t get into that discussion here.) While it’s true that a low wage is better than no wage, there is a virtue involved in the act of employing people which requires a basic level of care for the employee, which we might annex to “beneficence.” (Attached to this would be a duty not to employ too many people under one master… The “order of charity,” which I have discussed elsewhere, is another big problem with socialist thought.) However, we cannot legislate against all immorality. Even though exploiting workers through unjust wages is one of the four sins which cry to Heaven for vengeance, it does not seem that civil law is usually the appropriate measure to take, as it can have such terrible unintended consequences. Instead, employers need to be shown that it is in their best interest to treat workers well, and workers need to help each other by forming charitable organizations, stable families and neighborhoods, and so on. These measures will either alter the market price of labor, or the latter will at least help provide a safety-net for when times get tough. Finally, following MacIntyre’s lead, this whole discussion would be helped by jettisoning the language of “rights,” which inevitably contradict each other, and to speak instead about virtues.

At any rate, we cannot build Heaven on Earth by government fiat. The government playing deus ex machina with economics typically leads to disaster. A freer market will tend to be a healthier market in the long term, even though some people will abuse that freedom at the expense of others. Let’s leave the vengeance to God rather than wage-planning to bureaucrats.

Seven False Messiahs – Which one do you believe in too much?

Eamonn Clark

The little writing I have been able to do outside of normal work has recently been quite fruitful. Allow me to share a schema which identifies seven false messianic paradigms (or expectations of what the Christ is supposed to be or do)… We all gravitate toward one or more of these, and it is the task of the Gift of Understanding to correct these errors (crushing our little mental idols of God), leading us toward the truth rather than imitations of it.

The Messiah is not primarily about any of the following things: politics, rubrics, therapeutics, economics, theatrics, academics, or aesthetics. He is concerned with each, but only halfheartedly, as it were. One can easily identify an “antichristic” figure who would fulfill each of the seven the way we are inclined to desire… But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Politics – This is the paradigm which dominates the Gospels, and its zenith is found in Peter. The Messiah will throw off Roman rule and usher in an age of peace in Israel, and there will be a big Jewish party in Jerusalem. When Peter tells Jesus he is ready to die for Him, he really means it: he will die for this cause which he has fallaciously projected onto Jesus. When he discovers in the Garden of Gethsemane that the political Messiah is not Jesus, his whole world of hopes and dreams collapses – this is not the Messiah Peter signed up for. It is also not a Messiah which can be legitimately invoked to sanction any prudential legislation which a state might have to produce. The things that are God’s are God’s, the things that are Caesar’s are Caesar’s. The Christ does not deign to sanction public policy which exceeds the boundaries of the Ten Commandments – it is beneath Him.

Rubrics – The Pharisees will immediately come to mind with this word, “rubrics.” This is correct, but it is not sufficient… The thought that the Messiah is supposed to keep everyone in line extends beyond the Torah, written and oral, and into normal human behavior as well. Why does God allow people to do evil things? How can grace come through wicked ministers? Isn’t this what the Messiah is supposed to fix? No, no it is not. The Messiah is not these people, after all, and His glory is behind the cloud.

Therapeutics – The encounter with the rich young man is one example of a search for a Therapist-Messiah. Those who merely want the Christ to affirm them rather than challenge them are falling prey to this trap. The Messiah has not come to bring peace, but a sword. The world of discipleship is not a “safe space,” it is a continual high-stakes battle against sin and self-confrontation for the sake of deeper conversion of heart. “Spiritual but not religious” is the apex of this calamitous paradigm.

Economics – The crowds are like the Devil… They want the Messiah to turn stones into bread. The feeding of the 5,000 prompted the crowd to try to take Jesus away to make Him their king (John 6: 15). They are hoping for an endless Divine buffet, not of the Bread from Heaven, but of literal bread. It turns out that the Divine medical clinic was not in the cards either, though such arrangements would certainly have improved the temporal quality of life of, well, everyone. But civic works, as nice as they are, are not what the Christ has come for.

Theatrics – We’ve had the bread, so what about the circuses? Again like the Devil, the crowds always want a show. They want signs… meaning spectacular outward manifestations of Divine power. But this didn’t work for their forefathers in the Desert, and it will not work for them either, for miracles not only aren’t the point of the Messiah, they do not even of themselves suffice to create faith.

Academics – Those who regularly pray the Office of Readings might recall St. Francis Xavier’s scathing critique of the scholars in Paris… Surely, to turn the Christ into a mere object of study and intrigue is a deadly error. We might think of Herod as a prototype, who loved to listen to John the Baptist, but would not repent, and who longed to see Jesus for some time out of curiosity (which plugs into theatrics as well). The Messiah has not come simply to be an interesting point of debate, He has come for something greater. To reduce faith to study and learning is, therefore, a colossal error. Faith is the result of grace.

Aesthetics – Finally, we have a kind of catch-all error. In general, the Messiah has not come to create a certain kind of experience of God. “Stop holding on to me,” the Risen Lord tells the Magdalene… The Kingdom is not of this world, it is of eternity and consists in grace – it is a silent and invisible reality, at least for now. No fire or storm or earthquake is necessary. While we might point to some ancient errors and movements as examples of aesthetic errors, surely we can acknowledge some in our own day, such as certain attitudes which can surround the liturgy (with both libs and trads) or spiritual growth in general, such as I have discussed elsewhere. The Messiah is not about creating certain feelings or experiences, nice as those may be.

More false paradigms could possibly be added, though these will suffice for today. It is also a worthy endeavor to explore various combinations of these errors to see what kind of behavior and mindset they cause when working in tandem, such as with so-called “moralistic therapeutic deism“… But I will leave that to you the reader to do for yourself.

What, then, is the Messiah really about? In what does “messianics” really consist? Well, it is partially concerned with the 7 things above… But only indirectly. Christ is concerned with economics, for example, but it is not the primary mission. He is really concerned with how people relate with laws and protocol, but again, that is not the fundamental point.

The Messiah is Revelator and Redeemer. He gives us doctrine ordered to salvation, and then He actually offers us that salvation through Himself. All other activities of the Christ center around and are ordered to revelation and redemption – showing the way to God, or helping us to walk it. That road is narrow, but its gatekeeper is the real Christ… The wide road has a different gatekeeper, who also is concerned with politics, economics, and so on, albeit in a direct and fundamental way – it is the Devil, or the antichrist, wherein we see fine temporal “leadership,” but a terrible eternal friend.

The New Battle for Canaan

Eamonn Clark

About 3,300 years ago, Moses died on Mount Nebo, as a symbolic punishment. I have been to the spot and looked out at the land of Israel from afar, just what Moses would have seen. (A picture I took is above.) It was a hazy day, making it difficult to see everything.

The death of Moses occasioned the rise of his disciple Joshua (Hebrew “Yeshua”) who was commissioned to lead the Jews finally into this mysterious land of Canaan beyond the Jordan, their inheritance by Divine right. Joshua leads a ruthless campaign against the pagan occupiers of the land. (Here is where many of those “difficult” passages of Scripture are found…) The point of the violence is to drive out idolatry from the new home of God’s Chosen People, lest they be tempted to go after other gods. The First Commandment is first for a reason: it is the most important. If you do not worship the one true God, your natural virtue comes to nothing – the fundamental orientation of your life is wrong. To safeguard from such egregious sin, Joshua is given this task of purification.

While Joshua destroys most of the idol cults, he does not succeed fully. A remnant of paganism remains, and this remnant will lead many Jews astray. The predominant goal of the Prophets is precisely to condemn this idolatrous activity, especially on the part of the Kings. Eventually, Israel’s unfaithfulness is so bad that the Temple is destroyed and they are kicked out of the land of Canaan, exiled to Babylon – a wake up call if there ever was one.

What does this have to do with Advent and Christmas?

With the end of the Old Covenants, the Old Law, and the prophetic tradition, characterized by the figure of Moses, there comes a New Joshua – Jesus. In fact, the name Jesus is actually just a different appropriation of the same name, Yeshua. The fierce battle cry of the mighty Joshua is no match for the gentle coos of the little Christ child. The pagan warriors of Canaan may have trembled at the one, but the demons trembled at the other.

When the mythological tradition of the Ancient Near East is recalling the death of the gods (winter), the God of Israel is being truly born. (Yes, I do think that December 25th is the correct date of the historical Nativity, just like Benedict XVI.) The one true God will later die in the spring while the pagan gods are rising, but He will rise too. He has conquered them. But sin continues… There is still a war to fight.

The ongoing battle of the new Joshua is not the exterior Canaan, it is the interior one. The Christ comes into our mysterious hearts and seeks to purify them of idols that lead us into sin and worldly attachment, even at the expense of our suffering. This war is fought with grace and love rather than swords and arrows, and if we do not surrender we will win a battle that condemns us to dwell on the Nebo of the hereafter, always looking at the real Promised Land, longing for it, and never being able to enter.

However, if we welcome the New Joshua to be born into the Canaan of our souls, and if we let Him do the painful work of purification, we will see the New Jerusalem clearly and enter in.

And that’s what Christmas is all about.

St. John of the Cross, pray for us.

Practical Chastity

Eamonn Clark

“Oh Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not yet!”

The words of a wizened St. Augustine, reflecting on the prayer of his younger heart, are deeply insightful. They reveal us to ourselves, no doubt, and they give us a hint as to the path forward in our own journey towards sanctity: we must become chaste now. Not next week, not tomorrow, not this Lent, but right this very moment. 

Where to start? Well, first it will be helpful to recognize that lust is a sin which must be faced by getting away from the delight toward which the passion moves. As St. Thomas says, some sins must be fled from due to the sweetness of their object, while some sins must be faced by meditation on the opposing good (like how the slothful person should consider the goodness of spiritual things and thus be more drawn to them). All this is to say, the first step on the road to chastity is to step away from the cliff. In other words, remove the occasion of sin, or at least make the occasion as weak as possible. Here are just a few suggestions to consider.

  1. Put the computer by the window, or in a common area, or use some monitoring program.
  2. Take cold showers.
  3. Avoid “attractive” people who are off-limits.
  4. If you must associate with such people, don’t drink alcohol around them.
  5. When tempted to unchastity, pray a rosary, or sing a pious hymn, and then make a decision about whether you still want to sin… You are quite likely to be repulsed at the thought.
  6. Go to bed tired, but more importantly, get out of bed when you wake up. No lazing around.
  7. Purge your life from things which remind you of or move you toward unchastity… images, books, music, etc.

But sometimes this isn’t enough. Sometimes the passion creeps up, and the fire burns, and you’ve done nothing to occasion it. Then what? Well, run away. And I mean this quite literally. You see, the urge to the preservation of the species (the sexual urge) is strong, but the urge to self-preservation is much greater. To put it another way, make yourself uncomfortable by some kind of ascesis – recovering from pain is much more urgent than the pursuit of pleasure. The body will work to get back to “equilibrium” before reaching for a further good.

  1. Physical exercise. Nobody ever had an unchaste thought after a hard work-out. This also releases endorphins. And endorphins make you happy.
  2. Fasting. The old penitential manuals recommend it as well!
  3. Some other acute (but minor) self-affliction, like holding your breath, biting your tongue, etc.

Beyond moderate ascetic practices, generally making yourself (ideally keeping yourself) busy is helpful. Even simply getting up and moving around can distract the body and mind enough to drive out temptation. On top of this, here are some more “spiritual” remedies…

  1. Laughter. As an overflow of a delight of the rational soul into the senses, laughter is an extremely effective cure for lust.
  2. Cultivating humility with respect to an off-limits “person of interest,” such as realizing that they almost certainly don’t have the same feelings for you and never will, and that they would be horrified if they knew your desires. Seeing as the entirety of the natural “social” pleasure annexed to carnal pleasure is derived from the ego, this can be huge.
  3. Frequenting the Sacraments, especially confession, addressing struggles openly and with special resolution to amend your life in this regard.
  4. Prayer, especially placing yourself under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, even in an urgent moment of temptation.
  5. Resisting despair. One of the “daughters” of lust is a deadening of any desire for spiritual goods (which can become full-blown acedia in addition to serious violations of the 6th Commandment). The pursuit of chastity can also be very difficult, and therefore frustrating. This means that hope, as both the desire for the good of Heaven and the trust that the necessary help will be given to reach it, is a fundamental enemy of lust, and it should be cultivated through prayer, spiritual reading, healthy friendships, and an unwavering confidence in God’s mercy and desire to satisfy those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

7 Reasons Why We Needed the Ascension

Eamonn Clark

Bertrand Russell, perhaps the most famously atheist man of the 20th century, was asked on his deathbed what he would say to God if he met Him when he died. Russell said, “Sir, why did you take such pains to hide yourself?” Among the many objections to the Christian Faith, and to revealed religion in general, is this: that God does not make Himself evident enough. It is an understandable difficulty – if God is so good and wants people to know Him, why does He not make Himself more openly available? Clearly, the Ascension invites this question, especially when combined with the limited appearances of the risen Christ… He appeared to the Apostles, some other close disciples, and a nondescript large group in Jerusalem. Why not to as many as possible? The Romans? The Greeks? The Native Americans? (Thus the attractiveness of the Mormon doctrine that Jesus visited the Americas.)

We can start to answer this question with another question: should Jesus have jumped off the parapet of the Temple, as the Devil had suggested? Assuredly not, simply because He did not. While Jesus responds by rejecting the proposition because it would “test” God, we ought to be struck by the fact that it was not part of God’s design that the Christ would do such open miracles as flying around for all to see. Instead, the miracles of Jesus are, for the most part, quite obscure and hidden. There is chaos in the multiplication of the loaves, there is darkness and rain in the storm when He walks on the sea, the healings and resuscitations are done “inside” the body, etc. That’s why a depiction of Jesus like this might seem a little bit “off”:

When Jesus does fly, it is in front of a small group of hand-picked men, it is not to prove His power, and it is only done for a moment before He disappears into the clouds. Why did He not do a flyover of all of Israel, or even beyond?

Most of all – why did He not just stick around? Surely, the sight of a 2,000-year-old Jesus would be a definitive sign of His power for any sane person. He could continue His public ministry, and we could have a world leader with a perfect vision of human flourishing. It would have been easier especially for the Jews, who were basically expecting this kind of “worldly” Messiah anyway.

Let’s start with Christ’s own explanation for His departure: so that the Holy Spirit can be sent. Why is the sending of the Spirit contingent on Christ’s departure? One answer that comes to mind is that it would have been confusing to have such a dynamic… Why the need for the Spirit when Christ is physically here among us? If He remained, it would have been tempting to ignore the action of the Holy Spirit which moves us towards the spiritual union with Christ, that union which is called charity… People would have insisted on seeing Christ “in person,” since He would not be omnipresent the way He is now thanks to the sending of the Spirit Who teaches us to pray, as Paul says.

This leads us to the second reason for the Ascension, which is given by St. John of the Cross – the disciples’ relationship with Jesus was too sense-based and needed to be spiritualized. “Stop holding on to me,” as He told the Magdalene, “for I have not yet ascended to My Father.” (John 20:17) The relationship with the risen Christ is going to be of a different kind: one in the Spirit. Prayer and the Sacraments make much less sense if the physical Christ remains among us – they would seem like cheap imitations of a physical encounter or a direct word to or from Christ in the flesh. The Eucharist would be especially confusing… How is it that Christ is here and is consumed, but also physically over there, where He can be directly seen? His continued physical presence would prove to be a great obstacle to the appreciation of this mystical union.

Third, the popular hope of a worldly Messiah is destroyed by the Ascension. No doubt, after the Resurrection, the Apostles were still wondering when they would start a war with Rome and bring peace to the land of Israel. Jesus had been demonstrating during His public life that this was not the plan, but the misguided hope yet lingered. For the idea of a worldly Messiah to go away, the Messiah had to go away. Christ shows us Who He is and what He is really about when He goes back to Heaven – the King of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Another reason presents itself immediately, which Sheen offered, namely, that in order for a man to become truly great he must die. Only after the completion of one’s life can people make a judgment about how well that life was lived. As Qoheleth says, “There is no embalming like a good name left behind; man’s true birthday is the day of his death.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2) Of course, Christ does not die at the Ascension, but His public life “dies,” which suffices. Nobody is waiting for Him to make a mistake, like the Pharisees used to do.

Fifth, in the Ascension, Christ transfers responsibility onto the Apostles, and by extension, onto the whole Church, for the task of making disciples. He does this in word and in deed: in word by commanding the Apostles to preach and to baptize (the “Great Commission”), and in deed by removing His bodily presence so that nobody could defer responsibility to Christ directly in these matters. With this enormous duty comes an enormous privilege and joy: to participate in the life of God insofar as He governs, teaches, and sanctifies His people.

Next, given that Christ is “one step removed” from the normal exterior functioning of the Church, it takes a purer kind of assent to enter into the Church’s life. One must have a more resolute determination to trust in God if God is using secondary causes to do His work. In other words, the added difficulty of Christian faith presented by Christ’s physical absence – especially given the circumstances of the Resurrection appearances – redounds to our merit for believing. The low-bar is set higher, as it were, giving those who make the “leap” the winners of a greater prize than what it might have been otherwise, and those who don’t will be the recipients of milder punishments. (Why the bar is set specifically there and not at another height seems unanswerable except by an appeal to God’s wisdom.)

Finally, Christ’s Ascension points us towards our own final destiny – dwelling in the presence of the Godhead – and makes us hope for it. Unless He returns very soon, we too will die, rise, and hopefully appear before a Friend rather than a Judge, and then be brought into Heaven. Where Christ physically went, He brought our human nature with Him in His own, and so this is also a sign of our present status as ones who also currently dwell with God, albeit in a dimmer way. Furthermore, the thought of Christ’s return is particularly important in helping us to acknowledge that we are waiting for His help – resurrection and judgment are not mere promises of a King on Earth, they are promises of a Savior Who resides in the very place to which we aspire, where He is preparing a place for us with Him.

Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below! Happy Ascension Thursday Sunday.

 

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