Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Make Them Share The Wealth With Me

Yesterday's gospel reading struck me in relation to the protests which have been continuing to occupy their at once earnest and farcical place on our front pages.
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me."

He replied to him, "Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?"

Then he said to the crowd, "Take care to guard against all greed,
for though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions."

Then he told them a parable. "There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, "What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?" And he said, "This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, "Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!"" But God said to him, "You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?" Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God." (Luke 12:13-21)

What Jesus is doing here is exactly what Christians who put utopian hopes in "social justice" causes in there here and now often accuse more traditional Christians of: When he is asked to step in and enforce a more just distribution of wealth, Christ instead points out that wealth is, itself, a passing thing. That building up wealth in this world will gain us nothing (perhaps worse the nothing) in the next.

It bears emphasizing, this in no way represents an endorsement of injustice or an assertion that those with wealth "deserve" their possessions. Christ's parable with which he follows up his reply to the wronged brother offers the most harsh fate possible to "the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God." But it is a response rooted not in attempting to right every wrong though some sort of Christian re-ordering of the economy or polity but in a call for conversion, in a reminder that wealth, whether a barn full to bursting or a bank account that runs to billions, will be nothing but a list of missed opportunities in that eternity to which we may be called at any moment.


Anonymous said...

Societies with lower gini coefficients have higher productivity.


Darwin said...

It would certainly be interesting to know the causal flow on that.

Foxfier said...

*looks up 'gini coefficents'*

I'd guess it's because you don't end up with everything being flat unless there's some sort of outside force depressing productivity. Either there's artificial lifting of the few that are in the lowest valleys, or something chops the tops off the mountains.

Anonymous said...

Foxfier, um, no, that would lead to the opposite conclusion. Check this out:

Sorting the chart by UN gini is revealing.

Darwin, a relatively equal distribution of income is a necessary condition for consumption and productivity. The top 1% in any society can always buy what they want, but the remaining 99% cannot unless they are receiving a reasonable slice of the pie. Local businesses will not thrive if the 1% is taking the lion's share.

But I can't think of any reason why high productivity would be necessary for a low gini.


Foxfier said...

Wiki? For income inequality?

Foxfier said...

Possibly the gini number was calculated-- to dive into Animal Farm category-- comparing all the "equal" folks to the "more equal" leaders? (It would also matter if all income was included in the calculation, and then you have to figure out the value of food and similar stuff.... Headache!)

Darwin said...

The thing is, the US is so incredibly high in productivity compared to other countries, despite having higher inequality than many other developed nations, it's hard to see how the US is suffering from a form of inequality that is pushing productivity down:

Indeed, if one can compare the two tables at that link (one for 2005 and the other for 2009) despite their being compiled by different agencies, since the global recession hit the US has passed far more socially democratic countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Belgium.

The thing to keep in mind with the GINI is that there are number of different factors which can cause it to be low or high. One is simply having some really huge "winners" on a global scale -- something that doesn't necessarily mean that your middle class isn't also very healthy. So, for example, if all the millionaires in the US suddenly moved to France, France's GINI should shoot up, that of the US would plummet. However, that would not necessarily mean that France suddenly had an economy which didn't allow it's middle class to be productive and generate wealth. It would just mean that it suddenly had a lot of extra people who were making money on a global scale. If anything, it might end up helping French workers because there'd suddenly be a huge market for high end goods.

On the other hand, a country like Belarus mostly just has a low GINI because it's a dictatorship with a horrific economy. And Haiti has a high GINI because there are a few rich people there but the economy is generally one big crater. Neither country's economy is actually healthy.

Anonymous said...

It's easy to find weird exceptions, and to concoct bizarre scenarios that could conceivably skew the data. But it's not easy to deny the bulk of the data.


Tausign said... the point of your post...

Jesus did in fact respond to the request of the brother seeking justice. It's true that he didn't point a finger directly at the greedy kin, but he certainly spoke to the issue in a most direct manner.

The fact that Jesus doesn't perform the role of judge is simply because he is not appointed to that role. The meaning of the 2nd line of the reading is secondary and almost an aside. If there's anything clear about the ministry of Jesus, its that he doesn't grasp or accept human structures of power: but he does inform them.

Likewise, the Christian faithful are called to inform their duly appointed arbitrators, judges, legislators, etc to strive for justice and not simply defer such matters to those who currently control the inheritance.

While I agree that conversion is the key, I think you've mischaracterized the meaning of the 2nd line from the gospel. I would suggest re-reading the passage omitting the 2nd line to get its true flavor.

Darwin said...


I guess I'm just a little unclear as to how good a trend we have if it doesn't apply to the world's largest economy. The only countries listed as having higher productivity than the US in 2009 were Norway, Luxembourg and the Netherlands -- all of which could be explained due to size and heavy focus on one or two very profitable industries. That's not to suggest that inequality is a good thing, I think it can be a very troubling sign, but I'm not sure there's a case to be made that it's clearly dragging the US down versus other nations.

Darwin said...


I certainly don't think that Christ ignored the problem brought before him. But it does strike me that the second line is not merely a throw-away, in that Christ refuses to answer the request in the way that it is made.

Given how inclined various schools or religious teacher were to tell people how to live their lives in detail, not to mention that Christ, as God, will be our ultimate judge in the moment of death, I guess it doesn't quite seem credible to me that Jesus was saying with that "look, it's above my payscale to sort out this issue".

What the second line suggests to me, in combination with what comes after, is something rather like my efforts to sort out a fight among my eldest daughters last night. "I'm not going to go into who teased who and who hit who -- both of you are fighting and this is not what you are called to do. What you are fighting about does not, in the end, matter."

It seems to me that the combination of the second line of the gospel with what follows basically says:

"Those of you who think you are accomplishing something by piling up worldly goods are giving up much to amass nothing. And those of you whose main concern is that you want those worldly goods as well, you are doing the same thing."

The focus is pretty relentlessly on death and the hereafter, not on achieving perfection in this world. It most certainly condemns greed, but I think it also clearly cuts against the strain of economic utopianism which is, for some reason, strong in certain sectors of Christianity right now.

Anonymous said...

Darwin, the problem isn't that our gini is so bad that it's strangling our economy. The US is roughly 0.45, which is much worse than the Netherlands at 0.25, but also much better than Namibia's 0.8. No, the problem is that our gini has been slowly but steadily getting worse for the past couple decades with no sign of letup in sight. This has got to stop.

In the early 1980's CEO's were paid 40X the income of the average American, the financial sector was 4% of GDP, and our gini was 0.35. Today CEO's are paid 300X the average American, the financial sector is 8% of GDP, and our gini is 0.45. None of these trends is good.


Tausign said...


"But it does strike me that the second line is not merely a throw-away, in that Christ refuses to answer the request in the way that it is made."

The analogy you used with your daughters is spot on. It's not about Jesus's 'paygrade', its the fact that the relationship among the two is being destroyed by worldly concerns, greed or otherwise. And the consequence of this failure can be catastrophic.

But here again, you set yourself up to be misunderstood by implying that the source of division 'doesn't matter', because it 'does not, in the end, matter'. I don't think you actually mean that, but that's how it comes accross to me.

"The focus is pretty relentlessly on death and the hereafter, not on achieving perfection in this world."

The issue is very much about our behavior in this world 'here and now'. The justice (perfection) is to be sought after today.

Ultimately my concern is how you've used the gospel passage to form this assertion in your post..."When he (Jesus) is asked to step in and enforce a more just distribution of wealth, Christ instead points out that wealth is, itself, a passing thing."

That's an assertion that leaves a lot to be desired (at the very least) and is fodder for gospel twisting.

Notwithstanding extremists who want to 'right every wrong' with a 'christian economic package'; we must be careful not to avoid speaking with 'a voice of contradiction' to many of the standard practices in our world.