Years ago, I came across an “Ask Marilyn” column in which a reader asked Marilyn Vos Savant if it would be all right for people to buy luxuries for themselves when there were poor people in their city. To my surprise, Marilyn answered “yes.”
If a person buys a pair of shoes for $1,000, Marilyn explained, or a handbag for $5,000, the money leaves her bank account and travels to that of the manufacturers. From there it moves on to the working people — cobblers, delivery folk and the like — creating jobs and income and thereby benefitting us all.
It sounds good, doesn’t it? Except that there’s a hitch. Marilyn didn’t answer the question. Her multiplier effect kicks in whenever we spend our money; it doesn’t depend on what we purchase, or for that matter, on the identity of the shopper. Our wealthy lady could just as well have spent $1,000 on shoes for impoverished children and her money would have traveled to the cobblers all the same. And as far as cobblers are concerned, she could have been a well-compensated worker buying her own family's shoes.
Notice, though, that by Marilyn’s logic, consumerism is the new charity; selfishness an expression of compassion; wealthy indulgence the means to social justice. Heresy has been defined as “a belief or opinion that does not agree with the official belief or opinion of a particular religion.” Can our economic conversation veer off into heresy? Pope Francis is just the most recent example of those who have come under fire for pointing out how.
Under capitalism, for example, labor is treated as a commodity subject to the laws of supply and demand. It is at the service of production. Of course, production serves us — the people — so rationalizing the economy to maximize productivity is another way of saying that we’re making it give us more things.
The conflict comes when rationalizing the economy leads some groups to be only marginally useful to production or even superfluous; or when ways are found to deny workers, or anyone else, a just compensation. Then, rationalization means lower wages, slashed benefits, or even total exclusion. Productivity comes at the cost of people — the people who work but no longer receive a dignified living or who are left behind altogether.
Then, the economy no longer serves us, but rather we are sacrificed to the economy. Productivity becomes an end in itself rather than the means for us to live better. Or at least for some, because those who are not so marginalized or displaced can live well off of the ill fortunes of the rest — hardly a notion that would’ve gone unchallenged by the Hebrew prophets or Jesus.
It’s not “capitalism” that does any of this, however. Capitalism is just a set of rules and procedures, not a person. We do it. But we don’t have to. We especially don’t have to when it comes to the rules that are ancillary to the game and thus could be written one way or another.
Things get confusing, however, because we have added ideas into the mix. We’ve added the idea of capitalism as a self-correcting machine spinning out rational economic outcomes, and we’ve added a moral matrix that tells us who the worthy actors are — the rich, who are the “job creators” à la Marilyn. The poor (and sinking middle class) are then forgotten or demonized.
The reasoning, however, is often circular. How do we know an outcome is “rational?” Because the market produced it. How do we know that the rich are productive? Because they earn a lot of money, just as we know that the poor aren’t because they don’t.
The heresy, of course, isn’t that there are lazy and unproductive people, but rather the presumption that the poor are the economic manifestation of them and that there is anything rational about their situation. Common sense and our own observations tell us that there are hardworking and productive as well as lazy and vice-ridden people in all social classes.
Market value, however, is not the same thing as real value. The big winners in the market include things like drugs, pornography and high-end prostitution as well as cigarettes, sugary cereals, fast food and the advertisements that lure us in. When people are asked to name the most meaningful professions, however, they invariably include those of more modest market value, such as pastors, family counselors, teachers and nurses. Drug dealer doesn’t make the list.
In the market, a person may be worth little or nothing, despite his needed labor. In the eyes of God, however, the accounting is different.
Mary Barker teaches political science in Salt Lake City and Madrid, Spain.