After a long hiatus, involving sickness and a car accident, I am finally back in the ball game.
Many of you must have noticed that recently the Democrats have been pulling the Chicken Little act saying that if the sequester goes into effect the country will basically come to a halt, we will have no military of any significance to protect us, jobs will perish by the boatload, and the poor will starve. My experience with New York City politicians sheds some light on this situation. In the 1970’s, when the city’s budget busting spendthriftery caused austerity to become a necessity, the first things to be cut were police and fire protection. Why, you may ask? Why not other non necessary things like the giant lumbering bureaucracies, for example? The only purpose of these cuts was to scare the citizens into insisting on removing the needed budget cuts and to say, “to heck with balancing the budget.” The same tactic is evident here. If the military budget gets cut, hoards of Canadians will come sweeping over the border in a murderous frenzy, and we will be helpless to stop them.
Nothing is further from the truth. I have gotten this from many sources, but the MSN Money site summarizes it most succinctly:
1. No recession is coming. They say that in a $16.4 trillion economy, the cuts are not nearly enough. After all, the cuts are only 2.4% of the whole Federal Budget.
2. The cuts are less than $85 billion. What the Democrats and many Republicans are quiet about is the economy and job killing $200 billion tax increase we are not saddled with.
3. Federal employees will feel the impact. Obama, or as someone in the comment called him, Oblabla, has expanded the Federal bureaucracy so much that Federal employment is really the only segment of the economy that is doing well.
4. Congress could give the Pentagon more flexibility. Since the cuts are across the board, allowing the Pentagon and the other agencies pick and choose where they will cut will assure that necessary programs will still function.
5. March first is not set in stone. Congress could pass a continuing resolution, as they have many times before, to extend the deadline and continue to fund the budget at current levels.
So before you build that disaster shelter and stock up on dried foods, mull this over. The gigantic Federal sector is like a cancer eating up everything in sight, like the blob from the jersey swamps. Is that what you want? And even if those evil Canadians attack us, we still have our Second Amendment Rights to fall back on, at least for the time being.
There are many reasons for the general population, and the politicians who cater to their wishes, not to accept what the scholars tell it to be true in economics and politics. There is ignorance, like the case of the woman who said that Obama was going to pay her rent, electric bill, etc. When asked where he was going to get the money, she replied, “From his stash.” There is the classic problem that you can never successfully oppose a principle to an interest. Even if I know what is right, it is very hard to think of the common good if that will stop my check from coming in. But what I would like to discuss in this entry is the problem of knowledge, the validity of it, and the method by which we attain it; and the problem of knowledge in our society.
This subject is called epistemology, from the Greek word epist?m?, meaning true knowledge as opposed to opinion. Opinion is a statement made with fear that the opposite may be true. Note that the fear does not have to reside in the know-it-all making the statement, but in the hearers, who would not bet money on the truth of the statement. Seeking the truth is a process designed to replace opinion with knowledge. In order to achieve knowledge one must be assured that the human being can accurately know the world outside of itself. This not only applies to physical things, but things such as the order contained within things on which the senses focus. Take the example of the little child who is given a new pink rubber ball. Such balls were common when I was a kid. Unless he has never seen one before, the child knows that that is a ball, that it is rubber, and that it bounces. The child immediately begins to bounce the ball until his mother tells him, “Not in the house, dear.” The child then goes outside to continue to bounce it. That child did not spend any serious time thinking about the ball; he got it in his hand, bounced it, his expectations were correct.
The great political philosopher Leo Strauss calls the fact that that we can accurately know what we sense pre-philosophical common sense. While there are cases when your senses can be deceived, those are out of the ordinary. I remember smelling what I thought was the smell of rotten eggs coming out of the chemistry lab, when it was really burning sulfur. Once I knew of the place from which the smell originated, and since I know there is no reason for eggs to be in the chemistry lab, I immediately drew the correct conclusion. I replaced opinion about the smell with knowledge about the smell. We could not live without this ability. Also, this does not apply to purely sensible objects but to more and more complex things. Think of the name Mary. It may remind you of our Blessed Mother, or a nice relative with that name. Suppose I add the word “typhoid” to Mary, so that it becomes “Typhoid Mary.” Typhoid Mary was the nickname of a woman in New York who, beginning in 1901, contracted typhoid fever as a carrier without symptoms and infected numerous people because she was a cook and unknowingly infected her customers. It was very difficult to find this carrier, so she became a household name.
Notice how your mind changed its orientation when the word “typhoid” was added to “Mary.” You needed no prompting from anybody to go from a joyful attitude toward “Mary” to a fearful attitude to “Typhoid Mary.” How did this happen? Typhoid Mary was a real person of which we received an intelligible species impressed upon our mind, such that “Typhoid Mary” became in some sense a part of you. The concept, coming from the reality and being impressed upon the intellect, can be analyzed by the intellect, and conclusions can be drawn. Hence flows the negative attitude. This is how human beings exist in the world. Their senses pick up something intelligible, the species impresses itself on the mind, the intellect analyzes it, and logical conclusions are drawn, frequently, but not always, followed by action.
But nowadays, the matter has become complicated. Beginning with the thought of René Descartes (1596–1650), who was a Catholic and a canon and civil lawyer, there arose the idea that we really cannot know what is outside our own head. For Descartes, the disagreements among philosophers were proof that we could not know reality outside of our mind, but we could only know our own ideas about reality. Thus he thought geometry was the true philosophy—because all of it was a mental construct. John Locke picked up on this in his epistemology by holding that our knowledge is only conversant regarding our own ideas, not external reality. Bishop Berkeley, who was a devout Anglican, felt that original creation could easily have been only mind and ideas, not real things. He held that anything that was not perceived did not exist, meaning that we know only what things are perceived by our own senses, and known by our own mind only. Any thinking not linked to these subjective things of sensing and perceiving have no existence. The things we think exist are, if you will, products of our senses and our mind, and we cannot posit their objective existence. Berkeley wrote: “Their esse [existence] is percepti [perceptible], nor is it possible they should have any existence outside of the minds or thinking things that perceive them.”
David Hume (1711–1776) continues this line of thought by holding that man has no distinct intellectual capacity for abstracting the intelligible from what his senses perceive. The things that the senses perceive are faint copies of the original, hence any intelligibility is a figment of the perceiver’s mind. Immanuel Kant took Hume seriously, and held that there was the world as it is and the world as we know it, and they were not the same. What humans do, supposed Kant, is impose categories on perceptions as though the perceptions were of real things. The categories are subjective. The person projects these categories or ideas outward on to the perceptions.
With all of this as background, we see in today’s society that these ideas are rampant, not just in intellectual circles but in the very populace itself.
We have all had conversations where our interlocutors have said, “Well, that’s true for you; not for me.” (As I recall that there is a line in West Side Story that says that very thing.) But today this subjective approach to reality even encompasses public policy. People in public life say things that are factually not true. More to the point, politicians, and even some economists, say things that the study of economics for centuries show are not true, yet they continue to mouth the same ideas. Even the economic practices of government have shown that they are not true, yet the persons uttering these same ideas continue to do so. Let’s take the economic stimuli. As a freshman in college, I could have told you that these injections of government funds (taxes) will not stimulate the economy. At best, they will lead to a temporary boom, which will end in a bust. At worst, like today, it will have no effect. The only outcome is inflation. Ben Bernanke, former economics professor at Princeton, should know better, but he now says he will continue injecting money into the economy by the billions every month to stimulate growth, despite the fact that economic theory tells us otherwise and practice over the past few years has verified the theory, as it did, by the way, in the 1970s. Nevertheless, Bernanke and politicians, the media, and many citizens think it will work. Why? Because the only reality is in their minds. If they think that it will “jump-start” the economy (as if the economy was a motorcycle), it will.
All of this is a type of Gnostic thinking. Gnosticism is a kind of infused, private knowledge given from “above” that only the elite have, such as Obama, Bernanke, and Geithner. Their followers are either in the Gnostic elite’s second tier, slavishly following the “enlightened,” or in the group that hangs on because of what they can gain from the elites being in power.
How do we remedy this situation? How do we change the minds of those who think that what they think is true, despite the objective truth? First we must ask the cause of the problem. I believe it falls directly on the government educational system and on the colleges and universities. Where would people pick up such outrageous epistemology except in the college classroom, taught by professors who cling to the Cartesian-Kantian fad? They inject the idea that we cannot know reality directly into the minds of students, who then go out and teach in the government schools. The poor teachers may never have heard of another epistemology. Oddly enough, on the other hand, those who major in business administration do not pick up these false philosophies because, if they thought like this, their business would fail and they might even wind up in jail. They cannot say that “they believe” that the company has a certain amount of funds, if the funds are not really there; but a liberal arts graduate can say that the stimulus will work, even though there is not a scintilla of evidence to back that up. Hence, prior to reforming the society, we have to reform education. When hiring teachers and professors, it is not where their degrees come from that matters, it is what they teach. If this is not done, the society will continue its downward slide.
In the preceding discussion of the popular notion of “fairness,” we discussed how there is a proper meaning of fairness which applied to procedures, but what most people today mean, and liberal politicians with them, is that fairness means equality of outcomes. Following this definitional error, we see the folks with fewer skills demanding the money of those with more skills based on the principle that it is not fair that, say, a great composer or novelist or inventor has more wealth than I, even though I have done nothing unique, such as write an opera or a great novel or invented a way to go to Mars quickly and safely.
To more clearly understand the cause of this problem, let us return to the Garden of Eden. Satan fell from the heavenly realms because he envied God. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were unable to commit regular sins of passion because their preternatural gifts gave their souls complete control over their bodies and their souls always cooperated with grace. They were in a similar condition as was Lucifer prior to his fall. In other words, Satan realized that the only temptation to which Adam and Eve would be able to succumb was the one to which he succumbed—envy. The temptation had to do, not with the fruit that God forbade them to eat, but the alleged outcome of eating the fruit—”for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5).
Let’s break this down. Firstly, notice how the devil is pointing out that God is not being “fair” because he is withholding something from them, a secret that he carefully guards by the prohibition of eating of that particular tree. God’s prohibition is meant to “keep them down” so that He can be the boss. If they stumble on the secret, God will now have competition; Adam and Eve will be like God. (This is Satan’s very desire and the very name of St. Michael opposing Satan, “Who is like God?”) So God is not being fair, and eating the fruit will produce an equality of outcome—divinity. By disobeying God, their envious motive, and their failure to repent immediately (remember Adam blamed God: “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me the fruit . . . .” Eve blamed the serpent: “The serpent beguiled me . . . .” [Gen 3:12-13]), they wound up trashing the whole world and everyone in it.
None of this means that we should not try to better ourselves. But this should be done by our own work and prudence. In business school I learned that we should be always learning. In any profession, getting more and more certifications aids the business by making the employee more and more qualified, and it helps the individual to become more marketable. What we may not do is to get ahead at the expense of others, or because we envy them. We have to close our ears to the rampant charges that we are constantly getting ripped off by those who are more successful than we. This is not to say that at times we do get ripped off. We quite properly call these people criminals. But we can never accuse all or even most successful people of doing this. Many things, especially in politics, are rackets, but this is no excuse for your failures. We must always examine our consciences and ask, “Have I done all I could to help myself and my family?” In my case, one college at which I taught paid so little that during one summer I got a job at an asphalt plant, working in tremendous heat, because we had four children and had a hard time paying the bills. I never said I am “entitled” to have a free summer because of my credentials.
The envy card plays right into the Marxist card game. Marx taught that everyone had class consciousness, meaning that if you were born in a certain socioeconomic strata, you could not transcend the mentality that came with it. This led to an implacable hatred between the wealthy and the poor that only the exploitation of the rich by the poor could remedy. When the violent takeover of society by the down-and-outs took place in the revolution, the job of those who ran the state, the proletariat, would be to expropriate the wealth of those who had, eliminating private property and reducing everyone to the same class. This would lead to perfect harmony. But note that the core of this whole way of thinking is envy. Marx held that the wealthy became so by ripping off the poor. There was no way out of this trap. This was what the wealthy do, and the poor live in hopelessness unless something is done.
There is an interesting wrinkle here. For Marx, a violent overthrow of the rich and their lackeys in the government is necessary. But a companion of his saw this a little differently. Ferdinand Lasalle, also a German (hard to believe with that name), agreed with Marx right up to the point of believing that the state was an enemy of the poor and a tool of the rich. Lasalle believed that the way to institute communism is to impose it through the state. Hardly anyone knows about Lasalle, but who won the argument, Marx or Lasalle? Think about it. American progressives are really socialists with a new name. They believe that the government is the vehicle of rescuing the poor from the evil rich. But to do so, they need the cooperation of the lower classes. But how do you get this, since the poor in the West live better than the poor in the rest of the world? You do it by stoking envy; by telling the lower classes that they are poor, whether they feel it or not, and blame their poverty, or even the fact that they are not as well off as certain business executives, on exploitation of the them by the rich. It’s a great vote-getter from those who have no idea how wealth is created or the basis of the payment of wages, which is productivity. Even talk about the “American dream” is founded on envy. Yes, it is true that this a country of unbelievable opportunity, but success requires hard work, knowledge, some cleverness, and the rejection of seeing oneself as a victim. And, no, not just anyone can be president!
Basically, success requires virtue. But today even the mention of virtue is met with ridicule. People are not allowed to see the results of their actions because those who did not do as well might be offended. Pressure is put on those in authority to be dishonest with those who do not work well, or who do not study well. Many people believe that they should get paid just for showing up, or students believe they should get an “A” just for attendance. Even criminals do not experience the punishment for their crimes for years after they have committed them.
For those who do not see the relationship between morality and politics, this scenario should change their mind. The 10 Commandments are there for a reason, and it is not merely personal sanctification. All morality impacts society and politics.
Anyone who is living has heard of the dispute between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church regarding the Obamacare ruling that religious organizations, such as schools and hospitals, must provide contraceptive services, including sterilization and abortifacient pills. Due to the tremendous outcry, the administration rescinded part of the mandate and said that the religious organizations did not have to provide the services, but their insurers did, and for free, women’s “health care” being considered a right under the Obamacare plan.
The major problem here is that the Catholic people and institutions will be paying for these “health” services, to which Catholics must have nothing to do, and many of the insurers are the Catholic organizations themselves. For example, in my diocese, the diocese is the insurer, and Catholic Charities is its insurer.
Why would a politician who wants to be reelected in November go charging into a large crowd of Christians, Jews, and religious liberty-loving Americans in general with only one horse and lance? Is he politically suicidal? Does he not know that he will be overwhelmed?
There are standard answers to this question, such as, Obama is appealing to his base. Even if he loses the fight, no one can say that he did not try to take on the evil, out-of-date Catholic Church. This will shore up his base, just as the stupid decision to stop the Keystone pipeline will solidify his radical environmental supporters. All this might be true. But an economist sees things from a little more complex view.
I have in the past explained what public choice economics is (see my article, “The Economics of Politics”). Let us apply Public Choice to the HHS mandate. What explains this action of the President and his Catholic henchwoman, Kathleen Sebelius, which seems to be political suicide. Remember, all people act in their own interest. That is not generally a bad thing, especially in the private forum, because 99% of what we do for ourselves helps the common good. Self-interest is not necessarily selfishness. But in public life it is another story. When a politician acts also for his own interest in public life, this interest usually contradicts the common good. Politicians protest that they are “public servants” and suddenly receive a halo when working for the government that they did not have in private life. Does that make sense to you? When politicians act (generally speaking), they act because they want something. Threatening to regulate an industry brings forth that something. Threatening to place expensive regulations on, say, the hat industry brings about a flurry of meetings among the hat industry executives about how to stop the regulations. The scenario usually ends up where the industry raises money and offers it to the politician’s election campaign funds or PACs, getting a promise to back down on the regulations. It also works in the other direction. A government cartel can be threatened by a politician to have the regulations which protect the cartel from competition removed. This forces the cartel to do the same thing—cough up money for the politician’s war chest to keep the regulations in place.
Now let us take the case at bar. We all know that Obama has a Catholic strategy. His idea is to rope in Catholics to his team by trying to show that despite the fact that he is a fanatical supporter of birth control and abortion, there are many prominent Catholics that follow him: Professor Kmiec, Kathleen Sebelius, Notre Dame, Joe Biden, etc. But his problem is that the American bishops are beginning to develop a backbone and are a bit more outspoken regarding the incompatibility of Catholicism with Obamaism. Since the original strategy meant to gain Catholic support is floundering, a new strategy to release the Catholic pressure against him is necessary. He now threatens to “regulate” Catholic institutions by making them pay for birth control, sterilization, and abortifacients. The Church puts up a big stink about it, good, but I am sure negotiations are going on behind the scenes to the tune of, “Mr. President, what do you want for this to go away?” Now the President can hardly expect the bishops to put money in his coffers. But one thing that they can do is soften their criticism of him, from now until election time.
Can we prove this? No, but we can see what happened in retrospect. If Obama lifts all the regulations, let us see if we see any opposition to Obama from the bishops in general. If they are silent prior to the next election, then that was probably what the deal was.
The above expression brings me back to my childhood on the streets of New York City, where we were always playing some kind of ball game. So many times during a stickball game in the street there would be a great hitter, like my friend Dennis, who would cream the ball every time he got up to bat. And usually after a few runs, one person on the other team would shout out, “That’s not fair!” In fact, it always seemed to be the same guy. He could not stand it that there was someone way better than he was, if that guy was on the other team. A few times this complainer would go off in a snit into his house until his temper would abate, and he would come out and apologize for his behavior in the face of yet another enemy home run.
In this case, my complaining friend was angry that someone was better, not only than he was, but even better than the rest of us—and we were no slouches. But Dennis was headed to the pros one day, which he almost made as a pitcher when he permanently injured his arm, and that was the end of that.
What is fairness? Interestingly, it is not a philosophical concept. Neither the Dictionary of the History of Ideas nor the Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entry for the word or any variation of it. The online dictionary, on the other hand, hits the nail on the head: “Gained or earned without cheating or stealing . . . free from favoritism or self-interest or bias or deception. . . .” But is this what my companion meant by his protests—that we have violated the rules; that we cheated or were out to get him? Of course not. But there is a serious problem in our society. More and more we hear the word “fair” and “fairness” in public discourse about the economy. There are calls by politicians and other interested parties that we need more fairness. The implication is clearly that if some people are doing better than others, financially, educationally, or skill-wise, there is something “unfair” about it; that these people have gotten where they are by “cheating or stealing” or with “bias or deception.” Take the example of Robert’s Rules of Order or the rules of criminal or civil procedure of a state. These rules are meant to produce a fair process, not to effect a “fair” outcome. The rules protect both sides of an argument to make sure they get a “fair” hearing. If the chairman of the meeting or in court the judge, who is the trier of law (the jury is the trier of fact), deviates from the rules, someone can object. But in a meeting when a vote is taken after the rules are followed, one sides loses; in a court once the jury decides, the rules being properly enforced by the court, the outcome is final. If you are convicted of bank robbery by said jury, that’s fair, because the rules are followed. You cannot argue that it is not fair that you have to spend 10 years in jail, while everybody else walks around free.
Now if your side loses, and there is a reason of substance, not procedure, why you are upset, you might claim that the outcome was not just, even though the procedures were fair. Suppose the members of the organization at the meeting merely did not listen to your arguments, or the jury ignored evidence in your favor; then you can argue on substantive grounds that justice was lacking. In business, suppose I contract to work for a company for a gross amount of $10 per hour, and when I get paid, I get only $8 per hour gross. This might very well be unjust, assuming it is not a mistake. If it is a mistake, it is merely unfair. If it is intentional, it is unjust.
So why the constant talk about fairness? Some have less resources than others. This is a fact of life, but there are reasons for it. If I have a skill that is in demand and you have no skills or a skill that no one demands, it is just that I get more income than you. A brain surgeon makes way more than I do, even though I have much more education than almost all brain surgeons. Why? If you have a brain tumor, who would you go to? Me? Even I would not go to me. Even though the world needs good political philosophers, economists, and theologians, the need is not as acute as the need for surgeons. Hence, surgeons are in demand more than political philosophers, economists, and theologians. Hence, the surgeons make more money. But so many people resent this. So many are supporters of politicians who will take the surgeons’ income away and give it to the political philosophers, economists, and theologians, or, more likely, give it to the skill-less. But the surgeons, and for that matter, the political philosophers, economists, and theologians are more in demand by society than the skill-less.
It seems that the root cause of all this fairness “jibba-jabba” (to quote Mr. T.) is egalitarianism, or the desire for equal outcomes, enforced, of course, by the government. And where does this idea come from? There are a couple of sources; intellectual, laziness, greed and envy. Here I want to address the laziness, greed and envy aspects. I want to do this because there are personal flaws surfacing and now widespread in many American people today. Laziness produces a desire for a reward despite the fact that one does not do anything to earn the reward. Greed is the desire lurking in all of us for more and more. Greed does not apply to the rich only, contrary to popular opinion. Since greed is a capital sin, as is laziness, it applies to all, if we let that cat out of the bag. Envy may be the worst of the three. In envy we are sad and jealous at the success of another and we begin to go from mere envy to a violation of the Tenth Commandment—desiring our neighbor’s goods, which then leads to violation of the Seventh Commandment—Thou shalt not steal.
But most people do not want to risk walking over to their neighbor’s house and kicking the family out of their mansion. This might bring dire consequences, like the possibility that the owner might kill the perpetrator, or that the perpetrator will be arrested and spend time in prison. What is the next best thing? Get the government to do it! Almost all government programs are wealth transfers in order to buy votes. The lower classes, which are more numerous than the more productive classes, use the votes or threat of votes to get politicians to take money from the latter and give it to the former. This now has become legalized theft. Those who voted for it will not go to jail, and the politicians will not go to jail. The productive classes are the only losers here because they just do not have the numbers. Today a report came out that the average person on governmental assistance gets more net money than the average net income of the whole USA. Gee, I wonder why!
Next, I want to write an article about the HHS mandate, but then I will return to the root causes of this problem.
I cannot take any credit for this, and I am sorry that I did not think of it first. The other day I was reading a book on spirituality and the author brought up an interesting point. She said that Christianity conformed to economic laws such as Gresham’s law. This law says, in its short form, that bad money drives out good. We can understand this by looking at an economic system that has two types of currency in circulation, both legal tender. One is a precious metal, such as gold, and the other, paper money, supposedly representing gold. The two currencies are interchangeable, meaning that one can turn in paper certificates for the real thing, or, say, for convenience, turn in the gold for certificates representing the gold. But when governments start printing more certificates than there is gold, like a counterfeiter, the value of those certificates begins to decline. People then notice that the paper certificate that says 10 oz. of gold buys less than the 10 oz. of actual gold. Noticing this, people obtain as much gold as they can and hoard it, and use the paper certificates. Gold, because it is now more valuable, becomes an inflation hedge and people keep it against the time when the paper currency becomes valueless; then they can bring out their real gold and still be able to survive.
The author to whom I referred said that there is a Gresham’s law of Christianity: non-challenging Christianity drives out challenging Christianity. We could say that non-challenging Christianity is “watered-down” Christianity, just as the paper currency in the above example is “watered-down” currency. In this case, however, the reason for the driving out of the challenging Christianity is different from the reason for the driving out of the gold in favor of the paper money. That reason is that people tend, because of the scars of original sin, to gravitate to the easy, the shortcut, to that which confirms their own private preferences. A friend of mine once characterized the typical sermon of the 1970s in New York City as, “It’s go to be good to be good.” This is an example of the “watered-down” religion that crept into so many parishes and dioceses since Vatican II was hijacked by modernist rebels. Priests no longer gave sermons on serious moral questions such as abortion or, God forbid, the evils of artificial birth control, in favor of sermons having very little content—sermons that made you feel good, rather than telling you what you must actually do. This kind of Christianity spread like wildfire, because now people could make up their own minds about moral questions, simply because there was no priestly guidance.
The catechetical instruction in the 1970s was horrible as well. When my kids began to become school age, we were directed to a private Catholic school run by nuns because people told us that it was more orthodox than the local parish school. Well, that was not true at all, and after my wife had a talk with the principal, and we both examined the catechetical materials my children were to have in their classes, we decided to homeschool. So who were left to go to the school? People who were not at all distressed by the no-content doctrine that was to be taught, and paid a lot of money for it. The rest of us went into “hiding,” in a sense.
One economic law that might help to understand this phenomenon is the economic “law of demand.” This very simple law, which is one of the first things one learns in an introductory economics class, is that when price goes up, people demand less of a product or service; when the price declines, they want more. The extent of the change of quantity demanded to the change of price is called by the unfortunate term of “elasticity.” Simply stated, if people are really committed to something, like heroin, a rise in price will make hardly a difference in demand. If people are not really committed, and there are some substitutes available, such as tea for coffee, the demand for the item with the rising price will fall and the demand for the item with the unchanged price will rise.
Applied to the religious situation at hand, when the Church begins to fail in its duties to the faithful to offer the unvarnished truth and substitutes a namby-pamby version of itself, two markets are created. One is the market for namby-pamby Catholicism, and the other for the real thing. They are no longer the same product. The newfangled version of Catholicism has a low price (no real penitential practices, pick-and-choose morality, and no real presence in the Eucharist) as opposed to the higher-priced Catholicism, the true version, which calls for real commitment and sacrifice, etc. Just as with a high-quality product which is sold in upscale stores, most people go for “knockoffs.” Liberal Catholicism is a “knockoff” religion. One gets to call oneself a Catholic like a woman who shows off her “Gucci” purse, but neither of them has the real thing.
Why are there two markets for Christianity? The answer is the level of the society. In a society that prized the traditional values of Christianity, the watered-down version would not be tolerated. For the last 40 years it not only has been tolerated, but embraced, by a society which has become “fat, dumb, and happy.” All we have to do is read the Old Testament to see the same scenario that God Himself predicted in Deuteronomy. The chosen people would become prosperous and eventually offer human sacrifices to Baal in the very temple itself. God sent his prophets to warn the people, as he has in the past hundred years or so: St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Josemaria Escriva, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, great popes, but like the Israelites of old, we did not listen.
The other market, that does not tolerate the cheesy Catholicism, pays an even higher price for the “product” because it comes with persecution, not only from the society at large and the agnostic media, but from members of the Church itself. My own sons, because they have a large number of children, are criticized by their fellow parishioners: “Didn’t you ever hear of birth control?” or “What are you, some sort of Super-Catholics?” There are even advertisers for this diluted form of Catholicism—liberal professors at so called Catholic universities. Most college-aged Catholic students, ignorant of the true faith and whose parents are just as ignorant, send them to these colleges thinking that they will get a Catholic education. They come out as agnostics, or as surface believers. It is the same as the advertisers of Gucci knockoff purses, who, while not admitting that the purse is not a real Gucci, tell them that it is, but just cheaper. That is to say, this is the real Catholicism, but it costs less in actual requirements than the original.
Because economics is not a business science but a science of human action, I think that this author I was reading has stumbled onto something useful to our understanding of the spiritual world, and I intend to follow the path it leads from time to time.
In our last article, we covered the fact that people make choices based on their values. The values are subjective to them. We stressed that this is not a denial of objective values, but it is a recognition that one must accept something as his own before he chooses it. Even green vegetables fall into this category. They are good for you, and you need their nutrients, but how many kids turn their nose up at them. In fact, even some adults reject them despite the fact that they know that they are part of a healthful diet. So, the truth is that people make choices based on what is in their heart, and it is not the job of the economist qua economist to comment on that.
Next, we have to realize that people’s values are ordinal, not cardinal. This means that they are not able to be ranked as 1, 2, 3, etc., but at 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so forth, and that this ranking changes over time, either long or short. Just before lunch, you may be hungry, and therefore, eating is ranked high on your value list. After lunch, eating has fallen to the bottom of the list, but will rise in rank as the day goes on. There are long- and short-term values. One might say that the most important thing I want to do in my life is to become a lawyer, but right now I have a paper due tomorrow and I have to get it done. Both of these values are ranked first, but in different time schemes. There are related in that the immediate problem, doing the paper, is a means to accomplish the long-term value.
When people act they not only act for an end, but they always act to improve their condition. From shifting your position in a chair so that you will feel more comfortable, to changing jobs because you see more room for advancement, no one acts if there is no chance for betterment. Acting, however, is based on the idea that the act is likely to improve one’s condition, so that a person must see an end and means to accomplish that end. If you are in prison and you would like to escape to regain your freedom, but the prison is so well sealed up that you cannot figure out a way out, you will not try to escape. Not to see any way to improve your lot in life, whether this perception is accurate or not, leads to despair. Persons who have a victim personality think that the whole world is against them and so they do not see any connection between their actions and their betterment. The result is that they stop trying. Those people who live in poverty-stricken countries, where there has been no economic improvement for a long time, despair of ever bettering their future. But these cases are usually caused by either dictatorship, where the ruler drains any wealth from his people, or by constant civil war. Political stability is necessary for economic improvement, because no one will try to fulfill their goals in the midst of serious uncertainty or danger.
What we usually call cost is called “opportunity cost” by economists. The cost of something is not the price one paid for it; it is the loss of the next best alternative, now made impossible by the choice of the first option. Years ago there was an ad on television of a guy drinking something, perhaps a soda. After finishing the drink, he hit himself on the forehead and said, “I could have had a V8,” referring to vegetable juice. Since he bought and drank the soda, he cannot have the V8, and the way the ad was set up, the opportunity cost of not having the vegetable juice was higher than the benefit of having the soda.
Notice that the idea of money was not brought up so far. Since economics is a science of human action, it is necessary to see the patterns of human action, prior to introducing money into the situation. This leads us to consider things that go into benefit. True, money or income might be the motivation for someone to do something, but part of considering the cost of the action might be what are called “psychic benefits.” Blessed Mother Teresa, knowing that she was pleasing God by showing his love to the least in his kingdom, did not make money taking care of the poorest of the poor, but received a psychic benefit greater than the very high cost to her in doing what she did. She started by herself, in the very poorest part of Calcutta, living with the squalor in which these unfortunates lived, taking care of those who were dying, smelled bad, had diseases, could not feed themselves, were incontinent, and in the midst of all this she was persecuted by Hindu authorities and citizens who accused her of not allowing these people to find their Karma.
This example aside, we are not disembodied souls, and the provisions for the body and those of the family are a necessary part of life. In addition, there is nothing in our faith that prohibits us from having labor-saving devices, or conveniences, such as air conditioners, which no one I knew had when I was a kid, or cars and such. (We are not all capable of becoming Mother Teresa.) The moral problem with this is not in the things themselves, being inanimate, but in the heart of the person. As Blessed Pope John Paul II said, the problem is in a person’s defining himself by “having,” not “being.”
Having said this, it is now time to go on to more of what makes a free market work: our next installment.
This is going to be a series of articles to help Catholics understand economics. Because of the serious deficit in the comprehension of economics by Catholics, this will be a daunting task, but the author will do his best.
In order to understand this subject, there is a need to distinguish between the actions of human beings and the way those actions are perceived by those who study them. The value of any writer’s thought is whether it jibes with actual human experience. Note, it is not your personal experience, but the general experience of humanity that counts. This means that the economic system of a country and the writings of those who study it may or may not jibe, depending upon how schooled in technique and objective the observer is. It is a commonplace that witnesses to a crime, even if it is staged crime in a law school class, will differ widely in their descriptions of what occurred. This means that no evaluation of how an economy works is valid when done by observers not trained in what to look for, nor trained to analyze what they have observed, not to mention the fact that their experience may be limited to their own neighborhood or their personal experience, or one event. Sadly, most people see themselves as experts on economics and political science, without having read or studied any serious work on these subjects. Happily, this is not true of surgery. Very few people try to instruct physicians on how to take out a gall bladder, but everyone “knows” about politics and economics, such that the layman considers his view of these subjects as good as, or better than, those who have studied for years.
Everyone must remember that the economic system is a given, and it is extremely complex. There are billions of transactions of every kind (not just business transactions) that occur continually each and every day. No human being or group of human beings or computer can ever monitor even some of those transactions. This is because a transaction is not a transaction until someone acts and another responds. One would have to be there to know the transaction; and who could ever do that? What we get are statistics that are nothing more than past history, a digest of what occurred a week or a month or two ago, by the time they are gathered. While analyzing statistics can be helpful in telling one what happened, it is useless in informing us as to why it happened. But a true science is not based on what, but on why, on cause and effect. And the best way to understand economics as a science is to understand man, not data.
Economics begins with the “action axiom,” i.e., man acts. There is no question that this is true, because even to argue with this you are required to act. It is true that man also thinks, but we cannot know what he is thinking unless he acts. So if a person says to himself that he going skiing tomorrow, it means nothing if he does not actually do it. If I come up with a great theory of the nature of the universe, it is useless unless I act—in this case, tell someone either verbally or on paper. We know about Einstein’s fruitful “thought experiments” only because he wrote about them. Blessed Pope John Paul II tells us in The Acting Person that those who only have ideas live in a dream world. Thinking about doing good does not make one good. Thinking about going to France does not get you there. Dreaming about a machine that you would like to invent that would be a great boon to mankind does not help mankind at all.
But admitting that man acts does not explain how man acts. Economics does not delve into the psychological tangles of the mind to explain why each man acts, but it does explain his actions to a great degree. Aristotle correctly informs us that all men act for an end or goal. In other words, people do not act for nothing. Your mother may have asked you at one time, “What are you doing?” You may have responded, “Nothing.” But was that really true? Chances are that you were playing, chilling, thinking about what to do on Saturday, or brooding, or stalling so that you did not have to do your homework or chores, etc. Even an act as innocuous as going to bed has a purpose to the person who does it. He knows that if he does not get sleep he will be miserable the next day, if not dysfunctional.
So, all men act for an end. In addition, all men act for the good. You may object to this, pointing out correctly that the prisons are full of people who did not act for the good. But as Aristotle says, men act for either a real good or a perceived good. In other words, whether the action is aimed at an objective good or not, even the bad acts seemed good to the perception of the actor at the time of the action. Think of the bank robber. No one goes through all that trouble because he was bored (of course, the ending of boredom is a end), but because it is seen as a solution to the robber’s money problems. Later on, when he sees his picture on television and he has to go on the run, he might come to the realization that it was not really a good choice, and turn himself in. But in this case, “good” again does not mean objectively good, but that the trouble he is in, and the inconvenience he caused himself, was not worth the money, which is slowly dwindling.
Here is presented to us another basic element of human action—all human acts are based on “subjective valuation.” If an economist had a nickel for every time some well-meaning Catholic misunderstood or intentionally misinterpreted that term, he could retire. Subjective valuation means that a person’s actions are based on things that HE thinks are of value. This in no way denies the existence of objective values. It just means that if a person has not subjectivized those values, he will not act on them. If a guy thinks ballet is for sissies, he will never go to one. If I fail to see the value of Catholicism, I will never become a Catholic. So everyone acts on his values. Examine yourself. Ask yourself why you do not do certain things, even things that are perfectly moral and objectively good. It is because YOU do not value them, while still insisting that they are objectively good.
Once upon a time, there was a man, let us say for the sake of the story it is me (it isn’t, but if I did these things, I would be in the same state as the man in the story). One day my 11-year-old Buick died. So, I needed another car. But instead of getting a nice used car for cheap, like the Buick I had which lasted 6 years, I went out and treated myself to a Ferrari. The price of this new car was over $225,000. Now I am a man of modest salary, and I already have a mortgage on my house and am trying to pay off credit cards, which means that I do not have that much discretionary cash. But the payment on this car (I looked this up in the amortization tables) at 5% for five years (the most they usually allow in a new car) is $4700 per month. Since, up to this time, I had a good credit record, they actually loaned me the money.
So I came home with the new Ferrari, and, after my wife stopped hitting me on the head with her rolling pin, she yelled at me for spending too much money and for putting us in so much debt. I felt very bad that she was so upset, so I decided, as soon as the headache went away, that I would do something nice for her. Since my wife does not have her own car (again, for the sake of the story), I went out and bought her a car. But since she was mad that I spent so much on the Ferrari, I decided to get her a cheaper car, so as not to spend as much. The car I bought, a Mercedes-Benz, cost $42,000 and the payments, at 5% for 5 years, would be about $800 per month, surely a bargain compared to a Ferrari. This means that I just boosted by monthly liability payments by $4700 + $800 which equals $5500 per month.
For a man of modest salary and only a small amount of discretionary cash, this payment is way too much. Suppose, for the sake of the story, I am not allowed to give the cars back. Even if I did, they would be considered used cars and I would still owe a chunk on them, though nothing like I am currently paying if I keep them. How do I make the payments? I borrow the money. After all, I made these purchases in only two days; maybe they have not gotten into the credit system yet. Suppose I got some credit cards with high credit levels? I would not have to borrow the whole payment from the cards every month, because I could make some part of the payment with my discretionary cash. I would, however, have to borrow a large portion to make the full payment. Maybe I could make my wife go to work, if she is not already working (in real life, she is). Maybe I can suddenly get hired as a vice-president of a big company so that my salary will take a big jump. But is that likely to happen anytime soon? No. Basically, I am in serious financial trouble.
Now, what is the meaning of this parable? If the reader did not already see it coming, we can compare the man in the parable to the Federal government. The man got attached to material goods, and not just any goods, but fancy, expensive cars, probably due to the mid-life crisis syndrome. The populace gets attached to transfer payments made to them, called entitlements, and the government gets attached to the power that comes to it in return for promising these entitlements to the people attached to them. But the government and the populace, who pay for these things, cannot really afford it, and, like the wife in the example, will shout and scream about the cost. So the government (husband) goes and gets loans to pay for the entitlements, and to appease those who complain about the spending, gets them some goodies, like bailouts for profligate banks and companies, the executives of which get to keep their jobs. Of course, to do that, the government has to borrow more, and in a pinch, the Federal Reserve Bank can counterfeit some cash, for which the man in the parable would go to jail for a long time if he got caught doing that. Meanwhile, the people (like the wife) are furious and are worried that the whole edifice will collapse. Just as the family will have to declare bankruptcy, the government will have to default on its debt. So the government (husband) finds a way to keep borrowing, though a lower amount, to enable everyone to keep their programs (and their cars), the protesters (wife) having gotten used to the bailouts (the Mercedes-Benz), etc. This is the recent debt deal worked out between Democrats and Republicans. Spending was not cut; just the rate of new spending is less than the old rate. We can still borrow more money, which we will also have to pay back, but since the economy has been malfunctioning for some time (no gigantic pay increases for the husband), where will the money come from?
This parable is not far-fetched in any sense of the word. The laws of economics, which are not laid down by anybody but come from the actions of humans, are the same for all. Milton Friedman famously said that there is no such thing as a free lunch. For those too young to know the reference of this wise statement, my grandfather, who was born in New York in 1880, told me that bars in those days advertised a free lunch. Of course, most people going in to get a free lunch got some alcoholic beverage. The cost of the beverage was high enough to pay for the food, so the lunch was not free. Everything has to be paid for, and the debts incurred are not incurred by the “government” but by the individuals in government whose actions try to defy the laws of human action—the laws of economics. Just as the husband in the story would be a fool to buy a Ferrari with the income he has, and then buy a less costing but costing nevertheless Mercedes-Benz right after that, so the people in government are crazy to think that they can keep promising and giving benefits to voters without considering how to pay for them. Thus endeth the lesson!