A blog of politics, law, religion, and the tricky spots where they collide.

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Captalism, its blessings, and its discontents

Some of us get paid to spend money because capitalism likes us. The credit card offers a little kickback and at the end of the month. The same thing happens to money that isn’t spent. The bank account (or whatever) pays interest. Stocks pay dividends. And while we’re at it, maybe we can spend a bit more upfront on insulation or fancy lightbulbs to see some huge savings later. It’s not that we did anything to earn this money. It’s just that we have some money, and we have an economic system that says that if you don’t really need money, you can have a bit more money. And if you really don’t need money, you can have a lot more money.

On the opposite end, it does the opposite thing. Companies demand that payments be made by certified check or money order. It costs money to spend money. Accounts with a negative balance collect interest. The nastier the financial situation, the nastier the costs of being in that situation. We have an economic system that feels that if you’re struggling maybe the playing field needs to be tilted a bit more.

This isn’t news to most people. It’s just sort of something we live with. But whenever we’re discussing policy, I think we need to keep two things in mind.

  1. In this particular division, it’s not the 99% vs. the 1%. Most of the people reading this are probably on the winning side of this slanted playing field.
  2. We don’t have a planned economy—but our economy does resemble one that was planned by a complete asshole. And, in a way, it sort of was. I mean, things didn’t get this way by coincidence.

Illegal kidney trade booms as new organ is 'sold every hour'

The illegal trade in kidneys has risen to such a level that an estimated 10,000 black market operations involving purchased human organs now take place annually, or more than one an hour, World Health Organisation experts have revealed. Evidence collected by a worldwide network of doctors shows that traffickers are defying laws intended to curtail their activities and are cashing in on rising international demand for replacement kidneys driven by the increase in diabetes and other diseases. Patients, many of whom will go to China, India or Pakistan for surgery, can pay up to $200,000 (nearly £128,000) for a kidney to gangs who harvest organs from vulnerable, desperate people, sometimes for as little as $5,000.

thecallus writes:

Just more proof that you can’t constrain market activities with sanctions.

You know what? Screw your markets. Sure, we can sanction and regulate. We can lock a few bad guys—whether it’s the guy selling black market organs or the guy ripping off people’s retirement savings by breaking market rules. I’m sure for every Raj Rajaratnam who ends up behind bars there’s a few thousand others.

Whatever. You know that sappy story about throwing starfish into the ocean? That’s how I feel about throwing these guys in jail.

(Source: abbyjean, via thecallus-deactivated20130520)

Malice and Profit

I’m reading case law on intentional infliction of emotional distress. Generally, you can’t be sued for hurting somebody’s feelings, unless your “conduct was outrageous and extreme beyond all possible bounds of decency and was such that it can be considered as utterly intolerable in a civilized community” and the “emotional distress was serious and of such a nature that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.” As you might imagine, this standard is not met very often. When it is met, it usually involves the sort of egregiously dickish statements usually reserved for YouTube comments.

While this sort of behavior is a pestilence on society, a greater violence is done by wilfully trampling basic human concerns to maximize profits. Decisions callously made in boardrooms cost people their careers, their homes, their health, and sometimes even their lives. If the only goal is profit, is it too impersonal to be malice? Is the “I don’t care enough about you to be malicious” defense viable? Can the single-minded pursuit of profit ever be malicious?1

  1. This is a serious question for the lawyers, law students, and people who for some unknown reason are thinking of becoming one or the other. If the mugger were to claim “hey, I was just trying to maximize my profits, it wasn’t anything personal,” we wouldn’t claim he lacked malice. Does the same ever apply to white collar crimes? What about non-criminal torts? 

I heard that the Wisconsin unions are greedy. I also heard that the greed of the rich is what makes capitalism function. Could somebody remind me how much you need to make a year before self-interest becomes a virtue instead of a vice?

What we value

Capitalism, as we’ve implemented it, rewards:

  1. Hard work
  2. Merit
  3. Luck
  4. Starting out with a lot of money

Except it rewards them in the opposite order. It think most of us are okay with an economic system that rewards hard work. Most of us would prefer a system where success was not largely contingent who your parents were. We don’t need this sort of neo-feudalism. I think we would also like to minimize the amount that dumb luck plays in wealth distribution.

Merit is the tough one. The labor of the brilliant, beautiful, creative, and healthy is more valuable than the labor of others. Surely I deserve a higher paying job, right? Except … merit is simply a sub-species of luck. We didn’t earn our intelligence.

We wouldn’t stand for a teacher who routinely and unapologetically gives bigger slices of cake to the prettiest children. Why do we tolerate an economic system that does the same thing?1

(I mean, aside from bare self-interest?)

  1. If I don’t put a footnote here, I’m going to get four or five people accusing me of advocating a Harrison Bergeron style “equality of result”—although I have never written anything remotely like that. By putting this footnote here, I’ll only get two or three such responses. Equality of opportunity is a wholly different value—and if we can’t ensure that the less privileged have a reasonable shot of success, we’re not bringing that to fruition. I don’t think that unequal is inherently unjust. But if we’re going to tolerate rampant and pervasive inequality of opportunity, we’d better have a spectacularly good reason for doing so. 

The key, critical point though, is that the search for wealth was equated to the search for personal holiness, carving out one’s own spiritual destiny, which has always been part of Christianity but is particularly an important focus of Protestantism.

Monkey Typist has gone to great effort to explain to me why certain Christians seem to consider American capitalism a holy institution. While the Bible has a few critical things to say about turning to earthly powers for physical or spiritual salvation, it also has a few things to say about not hoarding earthly things.

This last part particularly confuses me. Who equated the search for personal holiness with the search for wealth? There is a protestant tradition of valuing hard work and shunning idleness—but where did “work hard” morph into “accumulate crap”?

Stark’s thesis is that there is something unique about the Christian faith, something that led necessarily to faith in linear progress and the possibility of economic improvements. This element led to the development of what we call capitalism … and the establishment of the West.

Douglas Wilson, reviewing Victory of Reason (via SDS)

I’ve always been puzzled by the desire to link capitalism and Christianity as if the two are somehow causally connected. I can see the relative attraction of capitalism over a system like feudalism with its more explicit hierarchies. And I can certainly see why Christians might align themselves with capitalism if it is the alternative to an explicitly atheistic model.

But I don’t understand why anybody professing to follow Jesus’s teachings would consider our peculiar form of capitalism anything more than an uneasy bedfellow. I would be much indebted to anybody who could explain.

…as we forgive our debtors.

—The whole debt forgiveness bit is deemphasized in contemporary Western Christianity. It’s a bit too challenging for our prosperous capitalist sociaty. Maybe Jesus meant the metaphorical debts that you can’t actually collect on.