Posts tagged with: Sociology

Bill GatesIn a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Bill Gates — the richest man in the world — shares his thoughts on poverty and inequality:

Should the state be playing a greater role in helping people at the lowest end of the income scale? Poverty today looks very different than poverty in the past. The real thing you want to look at is consumption and use that as a metric and say, “Have you been worried about having enough to eat? Do you have enough warmth, shelter? Do you think of yourself as having a place to go?” The poor are better off than they were before, even though they’re still in the bottom group in terms of income.

The way we help the poor out today [is also a problem]. You have Section 8 housing, food stamps, fuel programs, very complex medical programs. It’s all high-overhead, capricious, not well-designed. Its ability to distinguish between somebody who has family that could take care of them versus someone who’s really out on their own is not very good, either. It’s a totally gameable system – not everybody games it, but lots of people do. Why aren’t the technocrats taking the poverty programs, looking at them as a whole, and then redesigning them? Well, they are afraid that if they do, their funding is going to be cut back, so they defend the thing that is absolutely horrific. Just look at low-cost housing and the various forms, the wait lists, things like that.

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Blog author: jballor
Thursday, February 13, 2014
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"I don't build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build!"

“I don’t build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build!”

At Slate Miya Tokumitsu writes that the motto “Do What You Love” really functions as a kind of capitalism-supporting opiate: “In masking the very exploitative mechanisms of labor that it fuels, DWYL is, in fact, the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism.” While Tokumitsu singles out Steve Jobs, perhaps Howard Roark might agree.

If that’s true (and it is more than debatable), then this Think Progress piece which touts the Affordable Care Act as a liberation of workers to do what they love ends up being a funny kind of justification for the capitalistic status quo: “People need to work, sure, but that doesn’t justify forcing people to do a particular kind of work — one they wouldn’t choose to do otherwise — at the pain of bad health.”

The problem with these perspectives, and they both represent ends of a continuum, is that work isn’t either all about you or all about someone else (society, your boss, lords of capital, our elected royalty, and so on). Work is something that concerns both us and others; it has a subjective and an objective aspect that must be balanced.

The reality is that a flourishing society needs people working at occupations all across the spectrum, from more subjectively and inwardly focused artistic, creative, entrepreneurial, and inventive types to those who are working primarily with the service of others in mind, whether to provide for their families or to do the dirty work necessary for others to thrive. But all occupations need to have some element of both the subjective and the objective element, even if the ratio is somewhat different in each individual case.

Even so, the best way to balance these horizontal concerns, I argue today at Think Christian, is by triangulating them vertically, to add attention about God’s divine call into the mix. That gets us beyond, I think, “the conflict that inevitably follows the calculation of labor against capital, dog against dog, me against you.”

The following is a letter written in response to a post from my friend Brad Littlejohn on the topic of the minimum wage

Dear Brad,

Thank you for your thoughtful and substantive engagement on the question of the minimum wage. I don’t think the conversation we had on Twitter earlier did justice to your work here, so I’m offering this response in hopes of furthering the conversation. I hope you find it fruitful. I certainly have. I should also note that I have been assuming the context of policy proposals to increase the minimum wage at the federal level in the United States. There are certainly aspects of what we’re discussing that apply to a greater or lesser extent in other contexts and at other levels of government, but at the level of individual states, for instance, the stakes are somewhat reduced and ameliorated by the realities of federalism.

You write that you “want to reflect a bit more fully on what’s wrong with one of the common conservative arguments against the minimum wage: that the laborer is only worth his productivity.” I have significant concerns with equating someone’s worth with the economic value of their labor in the marketplace. I do not argue that the laborer is only worth his or her productive work. I argue that a worker’s work is only valuable in a market setting insofar as someone is willing to pay for it. I agree that there is a subjective element to work that is in some ways intimately identified with and inseparable from the person doing the working. But I do maintain that the worker and the work can, and indeed must, be distinguished. Perhaps what we disagree about is that you think the wage someone is offered is primarily a signal about how much that person is valued. I think that the wage someone is offered is primarily a signal about how much that person’s work is useful to others.
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Acton Institute Director of Research Samuel Gregg sat down with Daniel McInerny, the Editor of the English edition of Aleteia, to discuss his latest book, Tea Party Catholic. McInerny and Gregg explore what Catholics should believe regarding limited government, free markets and capitalism. Check out Sam’s book here, and view the interview below.

DollarSignCapitalism is routinely castigated as an enemy of the arts, with much of the finger-pointing bent toward monsters of profit and efficiency — drooling only for money, caring nothing for beauty, and so on. Other critiques take aim at more systemic features, fearing that the type of industrialization that markets sometimes tend toward will inevitably detach artists from healthy social contexts, sucking dry any potential for flourishing as a result.

Yet while free economies certainly introduce a unique series of challenges for artists and consumers alike, and despite the wide array of bottom-dollar record-company execs and merchandising-obsessed Hollywood crackpots that demonstrate such obstacles, recent increases in economic empowerment have also led to plenty of artistic empowerment in turn.

Empowered to Create

The more obvious and overarching examples of this have to do with the simple ways in which widespread prosperity has freed up our time, energy, and resources. As collaboration and innovation accelerate, folks are continuing to discover new ways of doing more with less. As result, the tools and time needed to participate in a variety of artistic ventures, from hand-painting to stage acting to music production, are closer to common fingers than ever before.

Of course, market forces aren’t perfect. As channels of culture, they mostly funnel what they funnel, and that includes squalid appeals to the lowest common denominator. But neither are such forces limited to the hands of the tasteless and trite. Indeed, despite the best efforts of the powerful and privileged, many artists are now finding themselves increasingly equipped to bypass the big shots altogether, taking their art and their audiences with them, from the purchase of their paintbrushes to the publication of their portrait.

As a young boy, I dreamed of one day becoming a filmmaker. After working only two summers at minimum wage, I was able to save up enough cash to put that dream to the test, purchasing a-state of-the-art video camera and my very own digital editing equipment. Thanks to the innovations of others, and the basic freedoms that unleashed it all in the first place, at the age of 16, I was able to secure the tools needed to begin my work — tools that, only a decade prior, were confined to the hands of Hollywood bigwigs. (more…)

"Help me help you."

“Help me help you.”

Yesterday in conjunction with this week’s Acton Commentary I looked at Tim Riggins’ gift of freedom to his brother and the corresponding sense of responsibility that resulted. When Tim takes the rap for Billy, Billy has a responsibility to make something of his life. As Tim puts it, that’s the “deal.”

When Tim feels that Billy hasn’t lived up to his end, it causes conflict. Tim’s gift has created an obligation for the recipient. This reality is on clearest display in this exchange between the two brothers:

Billy: “How long are you going to hold it over my head, man?”

Tim: “The rest of my life if I feel it needs to be.”

This hints at the shadow-side of much of our gift-giving as human beings, as this good thing can be turned into a way of manipulating, controlling, or holding “it over” someone.

Consider these words about Augustine and their implications for the kinds of gift-giving that we ought to pursue:

A person who sorrows for someone who is miserable earns approval for the charity he shows, but if he is genuinely merciful he would far rather there were nothing to sorrow about. If such a thing as spiteful benevolence existed (which is impossible, of course, but supposing it did), a genuinely and sincerely merciful person would wish others to be miserable so that he could show them mercy!

The “spiteful benevolence” that drives much gift giving is actually intended to keep the recipient in a state of dependence, in a relationship that gives power to the giver which can be lorded over others. This, I think, is actually one of the key dynamics of much of the modern international aid movement. Aid can become a tool of a kind of neo-colonial policy.

It is this debased and corrupted form of gift-giving that has led so many to the extreme position which argues that true gifts require no response and inspire no responsibility. But as I argue this week, this abuse of the reality of gift is no argument against its proper use: “The connection between gift and gratitude invigorates a life of stewardship and responsibility.”

As Michael Novak observes in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, “A successful corporation is frequently based upon the principle of subsidiarity. According to this principle, concrete decisions must be made on the level closest to the concrete reality. Managers and workers need to trust the skills of their colleagues. A corporate strategy which overlooks this principle–and many do–falls prey to all the vices of a command economy, in which all orders come from above.”

According to a study by Melba J. Duncan in the Harvard Business Review, such delegation makes economic sense: “Generally speaking, work should be delegated to the lowest-cost employee who can do it well.”

A recent BusinessWeek article updates the case for executive assistants. Anyone who has had significant contact with corporate settings knows that the EAs are the ones who really get things done. But for such delegation to be effective and efficient, it must be empowering. As Duncan writes, “The most effective executives think deeply about the pieces of their workload that can be taken on—or restructured to be partially taken on—by the assistant.”

Even the “lowest-cost employee” has a stewardship responsibility.

Of course, delegation can go too far, too.

Elsa Walsh and her daughter - Courtesy of Elsa Walsh

Elsa Walsh and her daughter – Courtesy of Elsa Walsh

In a recent piece for the Washington Post, Elsa Walsh offers some healthy reflections on motherhood and career, hitting at some of the key themes I pointed to in my recent post on family and vocation.

She begins by discussing her own college-aged feminism, saying, “I wanted to be independent and self-supporting. I wanted love, but I wanted to be free.” With marriage and children, however, her views on freedom, family, and success would eventually change. “I’ve come to question many of the truths I once held dear,” she writes. “The woman I wanted to be at 22 is not the woman I wanted to be at 38 — not even close — and she is certainly not who I am now at 55.”

Tying things to the current discussion about women and career — driven largely by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s popular book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead — Walsh notes that, much like the revolutionary feminism of the 1970s, there’s something narrow and unsatisfying in the way that womanhood and career are currently being discussed:

Every few years, America rightly plunges into a public and heated discussion about women and feminism, work and family. The latest round has been stoked by Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Marissa Mayer, who have become symbols and participants in the argument over what women want. Yet, I find it to be a narrow conversation, centered largely on work, as though feminism is about nothing more than becoming a smart and productive employee and rising to the top.

Parenthood and family are much more central to our lives than this conversation lets on. The debate has become twisted and simplistic, as if we’re merely trying to figure out how women can become more like men. Instead, let’s ask: How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?

It helps to take a longer view of a woman’s life. (more…)

If we assume that the institutions of civil society, like churches, recreation centers, fantasy football leagues, and book clubs are essential for a flourishing society, it becomes very important to determine how such institutions are developed, maintained, and promoted.

For thinkers as varied as Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Kuyper, and Pope Paul VI, the realm of civil society provides an indispensable area of connection and protection between the individual person and the political order. In Quadragesimo anno, Paul VI writes of the need for “the reform of institutions,” necessary in part because of “the evil of what we have termed ‘individualism’ that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State.”

It is at this point that Paul VI invokes the principle of subsidiarity, which is dependent upon and recognizes the rich variegation of human social life, which consists in human identity not only in terms of the individual citizen and the political order, but also in the human person as friend, co-worshiper, family member, co-worker, neighbor, and so on. One of the things most pressing for Paul VI was the idea that these institutions of civil society needed to be strengthened, not only for their own good but also for that of the political order itself and even more broadly for the common good: “for, with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.”

How do we reinvigorate civil society once it has declined? How do we help build up what has atrophied? These are questions that are vital for moving beyond a false dichotomy of market and state or individual and state, not only conceptually but practically. As Matthew Kaemingk writes, “Their importance is often ignored by politicians, but sociologists tell us that a flourishing array of non-profits and free organizations consistently leads to measurable declines divorce, poverty, violence, obesity, depression, chronic illness, illiteracy, dependency, homelessness, and political apathy.” But if associations of civil society help lead to these outcomes, what helps lead to associations of civil society?

Melissa Steffan reports at Christianity Today this week on some research that bears on aspects of the necessary answers to these questions. Steffan writes, “Parents considering whether or not to send their children to private school can now weigh more than just tuition and curriculum. According to a new study from professors at Calvin College, the affiliation of a high school student’s school significantly impacts his or her sense of civic duty.”

She is referring to a new article from Jonathan Hill and Kevin den Dulk, “Religion, Volunteering, and Educational Setting: The Effect of Youth Schooling Type on Civic Engagement,” which appears in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
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In a lengthy interview in the Daily Caller, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg picks up many of the themes in his terrific new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future. Here’s an excerpt:

Daily Caller: In what ways do you think the U.S. has become like Europe?

Samuel Gregg: If you think about the criteria I just identified, it’s obvious that parts of America — states like California, Illinois, and New York — have more-or-less become European. Likewise, the fact that most federal government expenditures are overwhelmingly on welfare programs replicates the situation prevailing throughout Western Europe. Then there is the unwillingness on the part of many Americans to accept that we cannot go on this way. It is one thing to have problems. But it’s quite another to refuse to acknowledge them.

Daily Caller: What’s so bad about becoming like Europe? It’s not that bad of a place. It’s not like becoming like North Korea, right?

Samuel Gregg: I lived and studied in Europe for several years. So I can report that there is much to like! But even leaving aside many European nations’ apparent willingness to settle for long-term economic stagnation, I would argue that it’s becoming harder and harder to be a free person in Europe. By that, I don’t mean a re-emergence of the type of socialist regimes that controlled half of Europe for 50 years. Rather I have in mind two things. (more…)