Posts tagged with: Occupy Wall Street

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I examine Jesus’s famous parable of the Lost Sheep in the context of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable after some people grumble about him eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors at the time had a bad reputation of unfair business practices and government ties. Yet, Jesus tells the parable of a man who left ninety-nine sheep to find the one that went missing in order to caution his detractors about marginalizing even these tax collectors.

In light of this, does the “we are the 99%” rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which implicitly insinuates that anyone in the top 1 percent has gotten there unjustly, amount to shunning the lost sheep (and others) of our society today? Read this week’s Acton Commentary for more.

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Unported Author: Another Believer

“You’ve lost a good opportunity to shut up.” So said French president Nicolas Sarkozy to UK prime minister David Cameron as an instance of what BusinessWeek has dubbed “Europe’s Insult Diplomacy.” But it’s a retort that strikes me as equally relevant for the pontifications that pour forth from ecumenical officials in Geneva on almost every topic under the sun.

The latest instance of imprudence in the cause of desperately seeking relevance is the claim from Rev. Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), that the reformer John Calvin “would have been in the streets of New York or London with a placard,” joining the Occupy Wall Street movement.

I explore the dynamics of what I call the “ecumenical-industrial complex” in my book released last year, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. One of the points I make in the book is that ecumenical officials like Nyomi cannot seem to resist the opportunity to weigh in on contemporary political and economic issues as if there is a single, univocal, and absolute Christian position.

The claim that Calvin and OWS are kindred is precisely the kind of obfuscatory rhetoric that we don’t need from ecclesiastical representatives, whether at the congregational, denominational, or ecumenical level. On the constructive side, in Ecumenical Babel I make the case that the ecumenical movement, rather than making absurd claims akin to that of Calvin and OWS, might “decline to issue doctrinaire and casuistical proclamations about this or that particular policy. Instead, the ecumenical movement would understand its role in this sphere to provide broad guidance rather than particular judgments.”

The upshot of such a change would be that “the ecumenical movement’s social witness would place correspondingly less emphasis on direct political engagement and advice…and correspondingly greater emphasis on providing moral guidance to the church.” As opposed to saying that JC (whether John Calvin or Jesus Christ) “would have been in the streets of New York or London,” as Nyomi claims, instead “the character of ecumenical statements on social issues…would be far more restrained and chastened than we find today.”

But as long as the mainline ecumenical movement continues to conflate unity with unanimity on particular social questions, don’t expect reform to happen anytime soon.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) has boldly rebutted the arguments of our own Kishore Jayabalan, director of Istituto Acton, concerning the Vatican’s note on a “central world bank.” It has done so by showing him to be lacking in “respect for the inherent dignity of human life.” … Yes, we are talking about that Center for American Progress.

In a feature on their website that purports to tie last month’s Vatican note to the Occupy Wall Street movement, CAP offers this smarmy response to the analysis Jayabalan gave.

Some conservative Catholic commentators are not as supportive, however….

Kishore Jayabalan of the conservative Catholic Acton Institute said that the note’s appeal to an international authority contradicts the church’s teaching that problems are best solved starting at local levels of authority, also known as the doctrine of subsidiarity.

What these conservatives are missing is that the note draws heavily from the tradition of Catholic social teachings on justice and respect for the inherent dignity of human life. This is where the Occupy movement finds an ally.

CAP has one-upped us doctrinally: where Jayabalan is concerned with minor theological nuances like the doctrine of subsidiarity, their minds are fixed on higher principles like respect for human dignity, the most immediate threat to which is the great and terrible free market.

“At heart, it is a moral enterprise,” say CAP’s Jake Paysour about Occupy Wall Street. Yes, except at the hearts of its camps, where women dare not go because their human dignity is respected only as much as strong men find it convenient.

CAP’s record on human dignity speaks for itself. Its position on the lives of unborn children, for example, could not be any more out of line with Catholic teaching on “justice and respect for the inherent dignity of human life.” It is shocking that CAP even uses those words: the suggestion that they give one hoot about Church teaching on human dignity is nonsense.

I will resist the temptation of a GetReligion-style dismantling of the feature, since it would sail right over their heads at CAP, but I must point out that the Church’s principles of social justice were not “set forth 80 years ago” in Quadrogesimo Anno, as the author claims, but rather 40 years before in Rerum Novarum (hence the second encyclical’s name — not that we should expect anyone there to have any Latin). I don’t mean to make an ad hominem argument, but if you can’t get that right, what are you doing trying to explain the relative weights of principles first explicated in Rerum Novarum?

In the future: If you’re going to use the words of an Acton Institute expert, it is expected that you will avoid the shameless contortion of facts and logic that CAP indulged in today.

If you’ve watched any football or baseball recently, you’ve probably seen this Audi commercial. It’s quite funny, and it’s right up Acton’s alley: it artfully distinguishes between proper and improper stewardship of one’s wealth. In this case, an awkward after dinner exchange shows what happens to the use of wealth when culture is diminished:

We have on the one hand a couple appreciative of the aesthetic triumphs of humanity (the Browns), and on the other, a couple of barbarians (the Joneses). In order to get to know each other, the Browns go over to the Joneses’ house for dinner, where they are struck by the Joneses’ art collection – the latter, with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, seem to be the world’s greatest collectors of the Dutch master Vermeer.

But it turns out that the Joneses are boors who have no idea of the value of their collection, and can appreciate only the Smiths’ expensive car. Their wealth may have been acquired by the virtues of industry and thrift, but it is wasted if it is not spent on things of value.

On MercatorNet, Sarah Phelps Smith writes what must have been intended as a companion piece to the Audi commercial: a review of the Florentine art exhibit Money and Beauty; Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities running right now in that city. The exhibit is a collection of banking artifacts, coins, and art from the Medicis and other Florentine banking families.

The exhibit is particularly relevant right now because, as Wall Street has done, the Medicis became wealthy by providing indispensible financial services, and along the way they made some rather imprudent decisions (Dr. Smith provides the example of business done with royalty, who could default at will). The Medicis also supported the work of Botticelli, Leonardo, and others Renaissance geniuses, and for that, Western Civilization will always be in their debt.

It’s easy to point out that a months-long drum circle in the middle of New York City isn’t a cultural achievement, no matter how many sleepless nights are inflicted on the neighbors. But what should have instead of those drum circles? Besides making you depressed about federal funding of the arts (with apologies to cowboy poets in all states), Dr. Smith reminds us that you can’t take it with you:

Do we, as a culture, use “disposable income” to foster artists who have put the time and effort into learning their craft so that they can make beautiful objects with a beauty that will last five hundred years? Perhaps the exhibition can leave us with a desire to encourage people with means to commission, support and propagate works of art that will be timelessly beautiful and universal in appeal, so that when history looks at the products of our culture we (or rather those who come after us) will find our legacy worth looking at.

The Audi marketing team breaks the cringe making silence in their commercial with the text “True greatness should never go unrecognized.” They playfully acknowledge that their big sedans are toward the bottom of the important-things-in-life scale, and that someone for whom a Vermeer might as well be a Thomas Kinkade is not living a fully human life. It’s funny — you can’t be in the business of selling high end cars without rejecting cultural relativism.

In my commentary this week, I used Louisiana as one of the backdrops to shine the light on government greed. I first became fascinated with the political scene in the Pelican State when I moved down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

I stayed up late one night in 1996 watching C-Span2 while Woody Jenkins, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, appeared to have his election stolen. I was hooked from that point on.

Former Louisiana governor Earl Long once remarked, “When I die I want to be buried in Louisiana so I can stay active in politics.” Former Congressman Billy Tauzin said of his state: “One half of Louisiana is under water and the other half is under indictment.” Former governor Edwin Edwards, who is mentioned in the commentary, has a fascinating book profiling his antics and political corruption in The Last Hayride.

Louisiana has undergone a remarkable transformation and it is covered superbly by Jim Geraghty at National Review in “The Storm Calmer.” The transformation provides wisdom for the nation today. My commentary is printed below.

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Government Greed Needs an ‘Occupation’ Too

When it comes to political crookedness and graft, Louisiana is infamous. The New York Times just profiled Edwin Edwards, whose reputation earned him the nickname “Fast Eddie.” The former governor of the Pelican State recently released after a 10-year prison sentence for racketeering naturally wants back in the political ring. A resident displayed the love many still have for the former lawmaker, telling the Times, “We all knew he was going to steal, but he told us he was going to do it.”

Edwards serves as one of the most flagrant examples of government greed, enriching countless cronies along with himself. But he is not alone. The Occupy Wall Street movement focuses on “corporate greed,” but the public sector variety, though it draws less media attention, is equally reprehensible.

Eminent domain abuse, bloated public pensions, deficit spending—which simply generate calls for future tax increases—and a tax code that discourages saving and investing, are just a few examples of government greed. The 19th century British preacher and evangelist Charles Spurgeon once remarked, “You say, ‘If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.’ You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled.”

His audience was the individual. But Spurgeon’s warning applies to a government demanding more wealth that should remain private and more of the public trust. Government excess and the way in which it mercilessly suctions revenue away from Main Street are alarming indeed. According to The World Bank’s annual Doing Business report, the United States no longer ranks as a top 10 country for starting a business; Rwanda is higher on the list. Half a century ago, business rapidly mobilized to help launch the greatest army of liberation in world history; now the nation’s private sector faces an uncertain future.

Today the Occupy Wall Street movement and its echo chamber in the media denounce corporate America. But a smaller headline in Bloomberg News about Washington edging out San Jose, Calif., as the wealthiest U.S. metropolitan area raised eyebrows, too. The total compensation package for a federal employee in the beltway now exceeds $126,000. There are many hard working and patriotic federal employees, but as the federal government payroll increasingly coincides with a diminishing private sector, government employees are rapidly moving closer to the 1 percent.

More disturbing perhaps is a quote from the president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce who declared, “Wall Street has moved to K Street.” The mammoth increase in federal laws and regulation has generated an upsurge in the number of lobbyists and lawyers to manage the federal government’s far-reaching bureaucratic tentacles.

Greed of all sorts should be denounced. Unique to neither business nor government, its perennial presence illuminates the unchanged heart of humankind. For that reason the Founders understood that the power of government must be limited and virtue magnified. During the benediction at the Acton Institute’s Annual Dinner last week, Rev. Ren Broekhuizen offered this rightly famous quote from Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” He implored the assembled to mount their own righteous “occupation” of Wall Street, the government, business, and all of society.

Just last week, the 84-year-old former governor Edwin Edwards joked with well wishers and basked in the limelight at a parade during the International Rice Festival in Crowley, La. That same day Gov. Bobby Jindal coasted to reelection against a crowded field with nearly 66 percent of the vote. Jindal’s approval in part stems from sweeping reforms to antiquated laws that bred government greed and corruption. After Katrina and the BP oil spill, it was all the more apparent to Louisianans that the old way of doing things was toxic. Greed and corruption intensify suffering in a time of crisis.

As America faces its current economic crisis, Louisiana’s experience is instructive. Solutions can be found not in centralized power and burdensome regulation, which facilitate and reward government greed, but in framing sensible laws and reinvigorating a culture of virtue in business and government alike.

Kishore Jayabalan, director of Istituto Acton in Rome, is quoted extensively in a story about the Vatican’s note on economic centralization written by Edward Pentin, a reporter for the National Catholic Register. If you wonder why the Acton Institute is around — why we feel the need to connect your good intentions with sound economics — well, Kishore explains:

Kishore Jayabalan… welcomed the Vatican’s attempt to deal with the economic crisis, but he said their conclusions were based on “political and economic ignorance rather than experience.”

But the note, written by the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, lacks more than sound economics; it lacks theological depth. It speaks throughout of the common good, but without a moral framework, that common good can have little ethical consequence. The kind of economic reform the note calls for could only be motivated by a conception of the common good rooted in a full, Christian understanding of human nature. Jayabalan again: “[the note] doesn’t speak of God or the natural law and so neglects this substantial notion of the common good,”

There is comparatively little talk even of greed and idolatry in the note — those vices seem get more attention at Occupy Wall Street drum circles than at the PCPJ. We’ll talk about them though:

Jayabalan, a former official at the Pontifical Council, said greed and idolatry are permanently recurring temptations that require “constructive ways” to combat them. And yet “quite surprisingly for an office of the Roman Curia and from a Catholic perspective, the note does not tell us much about the spiritual battle that must take place.”

Rather than draft this note, Jayabalan said the Vatican should have drawn on the “economic wisdom of the division of labor” which would have told them “to stick to what it knows and does best.”

New polling data on the Occupy Wall Street protesters (HT: Reason.com blog) shows that the “movement” isn’t exactly representative of America’s downtrodden:

Rather, it comprises an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence. Half (52%) have participated in a political movement before, virtually all (98%) say they would support civil disobedience to achieve their goals, and nearly one-third (31%) would support violence to advance their agenda. The vast majority of demonstrators are actually employed, and the proportion of protesters unemployed (15%) is within single digits of the national unemployment rate (9.1%).

In an interview with reporter Brian Fraga of National Catholic Register, Acton’s Ray Nothstine pointed to what may be the fatal flaw for the protests: the lack of a coherent message.

“I’m hesitant to say it will bring about any change,” Nothstine said. “You have too many splinter groups. I can understand people are frustrated with the political status quo, and they’re mad about crony capitalism and government bailouts.

“But some of the demands that have been coming out of this movement, like a $20 minimum wage and across the board debt forgiveness, are very Utopian, and they’re really sort of economic disasters, as I would put it. They would create inflationary policies, create more deficit spending, and create more problems that helped to create the mess that we’re in.”

Read more of Nothstine’s comments in “Occupy Wall Street Gains Momentum” in the National Catholic Register. Nothstine also wrote a commentary on the Occupy Wall Street movement titled “Class Warriors for Big Government.”

The presence of one group at the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests might be surprising: the Distributist Review has produced this flyer for distribution at the protests.  They don’t seem to have asked themselves whether G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc would have gone down to protest with the unwashed masses (the answer, of course, is never in a million years) but contemporary “neodistributists” are a more inclusive set. They go far beyond the metaphysical and aesthetic principles of Chesterton and Belloc’s economics. Since that flyer’s a little hard to read, we’ve put together a list to help you identify your inner distributist: herewith, Ten Signs You May Be a Distributist:

  1. You can’t wait for the Revolution: As we’ve explained before, the changes distributists want amount to revolution. That puts them squarely in line with the rest of the OWS camp, whose communications head told NPR, “My political goal is to overthrow the government.” Fortunately, the revolution will be prosecuted in accord with Catholic Social Teaching. (What’s a little property-snatching among friends?) If this idea excites you, you may be a distributist!
  2. You just want to grow heirloom tomatoes in a co-op: Or maybe your grandfather’s strain of prized carrot. Either way, if think the Catholic Social Teaching mandates this kind of lifestyle, you may be a distributist!
  3. You abominate the seedless watermelon: The seedless watermelon is an unnatural monstrosity, you say? If you oppose genetic engineering on principle and begrudge the one billion lives saved by the Green Revolution, you may be a distributist!
  4. You find yourself supporting environmentalist policies, but for different reasons: If you find yourself always on the side of radical environmentalists, but as with the seedless watermelon, different principles lead you to their extreme positions — well, puzzle no longer. You may be a distributist!
  5. You think you live in a polis: If you’d like to impose virtue on 307 million people the same way you would on 75,000; if you think that what worked on a co-op level in Spain can be scaled up 60,000 percent without distortion; and if you insist on economic self-sufficiency — in short, if you’re more attached to the form of the polis than Aristotle himself was, then you may be a distributist!
  6. You find yourself asking “What would Frodo do?”: Distributists often take The Shire of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings as a model society (mostly those who consider a return to the polis too fantastical). If you’re convicted that eating two breakfasts a day is more in line with Catholic Social Teaching, you may be a distributist!
  7. You really miss guilds: If you’ve mythologized the quaint, confraternal aspects of medieval guilds, and don’t mind overlooking how controlling they were; if you love the idea of long apprenticeships and don’t mind sweeping grants of patent and absolute trade secrecy, you may be a distributist!
  8. You dislike intellectual property: If you view Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution as a tool for enriching the plutocracy (except of course when monopolies are given to guilds) and identify more with the Swedish-internet-pirate school of thought, you may be a distributist!
  9. You bleed your patients with leeches: If you long for the simpler, more local health care system of the Middle Ages, when your barber performed appendectomies and your doctor’s first instinct in case of illness was to send for leeches, then you may just be a distributist!
  10. You brew your own beer: Coors is the beer of Republicans, O’Doul’s is probably the beer of the Tea Party, and the unwashed hipsters at OWS all drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, but if you brew your own beer, you may be a distributist! (No word on what Chesterton thought of bathtub gin.)

Note: If you would like a more serious response to distributism, see here and here.

Blog author: kspence
Thursday, October 6, 2011
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My sister has a small pillow in her bedroom that’s embroidered with the words “She who dies with the most shoes wins.” I’m sure Lloyd Blankfein’s daughter has one just like it. And you’d think that the patchouli-scented Occupy Wall Street crowd might not like such a pillow, but you’d be wrong, as Ray Nothstine pointed out in this week’s Acton Commentary. The anger at Zuccotti Park isn’t sparked by greed on Wall Street, it’s sparked by greed in Zuccotti Park.

Unions that have joined the Occupy Wall Street protests are signing on to these demands for government-facilitated greed. The local Transport Workers Union spokesman told CNN,

Their goals are our goals. They brought a spotlight on issues that we’ve believed in for quite some time now. … Wall Street caused the implosion in the first place and is getting away scot-free while workers, transit workers, everybody, is forced to pay for their excesses.

So in return, the Transport Workers Union demands free art school for everyone. How that is in the best interest of the members of Local 100 is beyond me, because in the end, their union is parroting Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is good” speech from Wall Street.

The Transport Workers, the SEIU, and other labor groups pretend to align themselves with a groundswell of moral outrage directed at thieving, manipulative fat cats, but the outrage isn’t moral at all. It’s appetitive, and that’s not the political urge of a free society.

Author’s Note: My sister, an extremely smart and capable young lady, complains that I make her sound “like a complete airhead.” That is not at all the case, so if this post gave you that impression, know that she is very poor-in-spirit.

Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
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Occupy Wall Street?

On the Sojourners blog, Shane Claiborne marks the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi by absurdly wondering if “he’d be on Wall Street protesting today.” This follows the practice of shrinking Jesus Christ and various saints of the church down to pocket size (What Would Jesus Cut?) in order to fit them into whatever pet political project is at hand, in this case the Occupy Wall Street antics. Not the whole saint in the context of history, mind you, which could be inconvenient, but a happy little Smurf-Saint you can use to practice ventriloquism.

This causes all sorts of problems (most of them apparently unrecognized) for Claiborne as he attempts to cast St Francis as a fellow activist standing against Christian “extremists” who, among other sins, “bless bombs” and “baptize Wall Street.” This is anachronistic in the extreme but nevertheless it needs to be pointed out that the saint’s embrace of poverty and his care for the poor was not based on, as Claiborne claims, his status as “one of the first critics of capitalism.” St Francis lived and worked and prayed as he did out of a total commitment to the greatest commandment — to love God and love the neighbor.

Claiborne gets me to wondering: What would the Wall Street rabble demanding an end to the market economy make of St Francis and his deep devotion to orthodox Christian belief (he was one of those dogmatic Roman Catholics, don’t you know?), and all that involves? How many of the anarchists stretched out on the sidewalks of lower Manhattan with their smart phones and iPods could tell you what a feast day is and how it’s celebrated? An entry in the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia notes that St Francis drew his strength from “his intimate union with Jesus in the Holy Communion” not mobilizing Ivy League undergrads protesting their mounting student loan debts. Later in life, the saint was known for “an ungrudging submission to what constituted ecclesiastical authority.” Quite the revolutionary.

Claiborne recounts the journey St Francis made in 1219 to Egypt where crusaders were battling “Saracens.” Yes, he was sickened by the carnage and brutality he witnessed there and worked as a peacemaker to both sides. But the saint made his journey to convert Muslims to Christianity. Is that Claiborne’s model of ecumenical outreach?

Read the absurdly fantastic demands of the Occupy Wall Street crowd including free college education, multi-trillion dollar government spending programs, living wages for all, and the like. You wonder: Who is really worshiping Mammon here? Their program is devoid of any spiritual value. It is a political manifesto, imbued with grievance and aimed at plunder.

Love for the neighbor? Not if you’re one of those neighbors working on Wall Street — or Main Street for that matter. The protesters should listen to the saint’s words:

And all the brothers should beware that they do not slander or engage in disputes; rather, they should strive to keep silence whenever God gives them [such] grace. Nor should they quarrel among themselves or with others, but they should strive to respond humbly, saying: I am a useless servant. And they should not become angry, since everyone who grows angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; and he who has said to his brother ‘Raqa’ shall be liable to the Council; whoever has said ‘fool’ shall be liable to the fires of hell (Mt. 5:22). And they should love one another, as the Lord says: This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you (Jn. 15:12). And let them express the love which they have for one another by their deeds, as the Apostle says: Let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth (1 Jn. 3:18). And they should slander no one. Let them not murmur nor detract from others, for it is written: Gossips and detractors are detestable to God (Rom. 1:29-30). And let them be modest, by showing meekness toward everyone (cf. Tit. 3:2). Let them not judge or condemn. And as the Lord says, they should not take notice of the little defects of others. Rather they should reflect much more on their own in the bitterness of their soul. And let them strive to enter through the narrow gate, for the Lord says: Narrow is the gate and hard the road that leads to life; and there are few who find it (Mt. 7:14).”