September 16, 2005

Gratitude, Capitalism & Sloth

Two common modern faults are ahistoricalism and a lack of gratitude. They are connected, for if we know history then we become more grateful for what we’ve been given. We then realize that we don’t stand as isolated, self-made men and women but have been given advantages going back millennia. (Similarly in the religious realm where we stand on the shoulders of giants.) The material comfort we have now, for example, was forged to some extent by the genius of the Founding Fathers who created a political environment conducive to invention.

And yet capitalism seems to prize ahistoricalism and ingratitude by regarding what you did yesterday as immaterial; we are told that the company not gaining market share, improving its margins, is dying. Capitalism puzzles me because it furthers radical unselfishness via radical selfishness. Perhaps due to sloth, my inclination is to thank those who came before by enjoying the fruits of their labor and to say we have enough "things" now, thank you very much. But capitalism rules out any sort of conservation in the form of simple capital preservation. To merely preserve capital is an anthemna in the supra-competitive business world.

I asked why our successful private company became public and was told that the big guys wanted to be “where the action is”, in New York, on the exchange, in the “game”. I understand that, but I also can’t get quite past this notion that at some point the incremental gains aren’t worth the incremental effort. At what point do we say ‘enough is enough’ and say that we have enough material goods? But I am inconsistent: Despite the tremendous medical advances of the past hundred years I'm not quite ready to rest on that capital. Knowing someone who slowly died of Lou Gehrig’s disease withers my inclination to merely conserve what we’ve been given. Similarly with cancer and aids and the viruses that constantly mutate, promising one day to defeat our strongest antibiotics. In the cutthroat world of plague, it is true that if you aren't progressing, you'll die.

Perhaps the farmer has a more natural rhythm of work and rest and conservation than the rest of us. He can work hard during planting season and then rest and enjoy the fruits of his harvest. In the modern corporation there is no harvest, there is only constant sowing. You are only as good as your last quarterly earnings statement, and Wall Street punishes unmercifully the fallow field. And yet the spiritual life is the same. If we are not growing, we are dying our spiritual betters tell us. We are only as good as the decision we make today for God. There is a constant need for sowing, for evangelization, because doesn't the mere conservation of spiritual treasure recall Christ's parable of the man who buried his talents? We can get enough of things but never enough of God, and work for the Kingdom is born and furthered by grace but abetted by historicism and gratitude.


UPDATE: MamaT emailed with many good thoughts. Part of what I meant by "radical selifishness furthers unselfishness" is that those people who ARE producing more "things" are helpful, helpful to the economy and therefore helpful to the poor and lower class. The lower class not only needs "things", but needs an economy that is robust, and a robust economy demands that we not rest on our laurels. In a sense, those who are materially comfortable are working less for themselves than for people who are on the margins. (Of course, one can say that by spending money we are helping the economy, so I try to do my part with books and vacations. *grin*)

Anyway, here is the needed corrective from Mama T:
Maybe there are enough things out there. Heaven only knows that it gives me the heebie-jeebies to walk through WalMart and see the vast quantities of STUFF available to us. Something about those piles of material goods makes my soul hurt. But then, isn't it supposed to, in a way? If my problem is materialism and its brothers greed and lust, then it isn't quite fair of me to think that it would be better for me if someone else kept this giant pile of stuff away from me. Oh, yeah, and away from those poor benighted souls who ought to be worrying about it even if they aren't spiritually mature enough (like me!) to do so.

It is really easy for those of us in the upper middle class to rail against materialism. While I am very conservative politically, economically and socially, and I realize that many of the poor in America today are not poor by a *global* standard, there are certainly enough folks who lack the accoutrments of my easy life. Do I give up my stuff, and come down to their level (which, I suspect, may be closer to the right answer than I like to think) or do we make enough "stuff" until everyone has a lot? I don't know.

And, of course, there is the always asked question: Who decides what is *enough*? If you're tithing to your church, and helping the poor, is it wrong to have the super-deluxe bass boat? I had a long a very serious talk with my priest about these very issues. How do we live a holy life in the midst of plenty?

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