Tag Archives: Ben Carson

Uncle Ben and Other Myths

There has been a lot of talk over the past month about the versions of “truth” that have been coming out in debates between US Republican presidential candidates. Veteran conservative columnist George Will summed up the current atmosphere with the opening sentence of a scathing review of a book by one of his fellow News Corp. employees last week: “Donald Trump is just one symptom of today’s cultural pathology of self-validating vehemence with blustery certitudes substituting for evidence.”

Politicians in general have had a “challenged” relationship with “truth” since forever, but this season the syndrome has gotten to the point where somewhat educated people on the political right are shaking their heads in disbelief at some of the things their candidates seriously seem to believe. People in other parts of the western world are generally reassuring themselves with the belief that this is just a show for the satisfaction of the craziest 5% fringe of the American population, and that the populace as a whole would not be crazy enough to elect one of these people as leader of the most militarily powerful nation on earth. I’d like to think so myself, but when I was 18 years old my country elected Ronald Reagan as president, and since then I’ve made a point of never underestimating the ignorance of the common man there.

There are effectively two things that are more important than competence and awareness of an outside world to Republican primary voters, and thus to their would-be presidential candidates: guns and “Christian values”. To have any hope of being nominated these people need the approval of both the NRA and the NRB: the National Rifle Association and the National Religious Broadcasters. To get those approvals you can’t be too interested in truth as such. For both you have to put fears and presuppositions way ahead of investigation and critical thinking skills of any sort.

So one of the front runners is now a blustering business man who has always instinctively known that what those with money are willing to pay for is more important than what is sustainable or capable of increasing the public well-being, and who has thus made a career of putting image ahead of substance.

The other is a retired surgeon whose personal priority is to stay as far as possible from the poverty he grew up in, who knows that both seeing patients through high risk procedures and getting fans to pay to hear his story requires a skill in instilling confidence in them, regardless what the facts of the matter are. So he has become something of an expert in delivering that sort of hopeful message to patients and paying clients.

Last week’s major trivial dispute between liberals and conservatives had to do with interpreting the various statements that Dr. Carson has put forward as fact over the years. There have been essentially 5 issues on which he has been particularly challenged, each with its own ideological implications. To take them in the order they occurred in his life:

  1. He claims to have attempted to kill someone with a knife as a teenager, marking a turning point in learning to deal with anger issues by way of his religious faith.
  2. He claims that during his high school years he met with the US military commander of the forces in Viet Nam, and that in association with this meeting he was effectively promised a place at West Point Military Academy.
  3. He claims that there was a write-up in a student newspaper about his superior moral character as a student at Yale when he was they only one to do a re-test for a psychology exam that was actually given as a gag.
  4. He has asserted a continuing personal belief that the great pyramids of Egypt were originally build by the biblical character Joseph, son of Jacob, as grain storage facilities.
  5. He denied his ongoing association with a dubious company making herbal remedies for cancer, which he gave speeches to endorse after he had been treated for prostate cancer.

The Daily Mail’s picture of the portrait of himself and Jesus which Carson has on his wall at home.

The spin put on each of these issues has been rather amazing. Suffice to say that neither the Koch-financed Carson campaign with its Fox News support group, nor the American left blogosphere will give you any sort of reliable picture of what has happened in Carson’s life and thinking since the mid-sixties. To understand where he is coming from and how far he can be trusted, there are a few cultural genres which it helps to understand:
– the ghost written autobiographical American Dream rags-to-riches tale,
– the evangelical “personal testimony” tradition in both African-American and Adventist churches,
– the paid motivational speech by the “successful black man” who made it up out of the ghetto (usually as a professional athlete, but on occasion through other exceptional skills),
– the motivational sermon from Old Testament narratives of God saving his people,
– the classic “alternative medicine” or “miracle cure” sales pitch.

What all these have in common is that their “honesty” is not based on what the ancient Greeks called “logos”, but rather on some form of “mythos”. They can be honest in the same way as Shakespearean histories and dramas: they provide the audience with important life lessons about the human experience, existential purpose and causes they can believe in, even if they tend not to get all of the historical details right. This is the sort of world that Ben Carson has been living in for the past generation, since he escaped the ghetto.

The promotional picture for a biopic about Carson, starring Cuba Gooding Jr.

But there are distinct risks involved in this sort of mythical “honesty,” especially when its genres are not acknowledged and its “factuality” is taken too seriously by speaker and audience alike. The important thing is to keep things in perspective. So let’s look at the contexts these statements come from, consider the message they are attempting to give, and decide what sort of risks there might be in believing them.

I read Carson’s autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” years ago, when someone close to me was going under his knife. At the time he was not considering a retirement career in politics yet. He was mostly trying to do as much as possible to secure his place in the upper class, and trying to establish something of a legacy for himself as a humanitarian on the side. If reading ghost-written motivational autobiographies is sort of your thing I can recommend putting this book on your list. If you want to take the lazier version of the task of finding out about his non-political understanding of himself, I’d recommend sitting through the hour and a half of his Mannatech promotional speech from a decade ago on Youtube.

Bear in mind that this is a company that quite literally sells sugar pills as a cure for cancer, to the tune of over $200 per customer per month; that in the 5 years following the speech on this video, the company was sued by the state of Texas for sleazy business practices, and their products were discredited by researchers at Carson’s own Johns Hopkins University; but he continued to give pep talks to their sales force at least until 2013; yet in the famously “media biased” MSNBC Republican debate he denied any association with them.

In this speech Carson skillfully endorses the company’s integrity without making any direct factual claims regarding their products. In between he tells now familiar stories from his childhood, the tale of his frightening experience with prostate cancer, and above all he gives multiple testimonies to the healing power of prayer.

One of his cleverly placed applause lines is about the impossibility of maintaining political correctness, which largely overshadows the point of the narrative he packed around it: that he started off majoring in psychology, and while he still plays with psychoanalysis on an amateur level, he switched over to neuro-surgery for purely materialistic reasons –– he wanted to go where the big bucks were. To put it in his own words, “I hated poverty! …In a way I think maybe that was a good thing, because it drove me. At times when I might have been willing to give up, it drove me to go on, because I didn’t want to go back there.” It’s important to recognize the power of such hatred as the unifying principle of his biography. We’ll come back to that.

Carson’s personal testimony of redemption begins with his parents’ divorce and his subsequent academic difficulties in primary school. In this video version he adds a few other condemnations of his father beyond the fact that his mother discovered him practicing bigamy. Carson here claims that his father keeping another wife and kids on the side was only “the straw which broke the camel’s back” after his father’s more traditional ghetto sins of drinking, drugs and financial mismanagement. Some straw! Makes one wonder how much the facts of this story vary depending on the interests and political proclivities of his audience.

In any case, as he consistently tells it, his first major turn-around in life came from his mother’s God-given wisdom to keep he and his brother away from television and require them to start reading and reporting to her on library books. In the middle of that success story he hits on many of the standard Bush II era GOP talking points: believing that those who work hard and live smart always succeed, insisting that welfare is an evil and disempowering force in people’s lives, complaining about the damage that malpractice litigation and the insurance industry were doing to the medical profession, and suggesting that people other than lawyers need to be more actively involved in the legislative branch of government. Then, building from his overall narrative of struggling with anger issues and egotism as a high school student, (at approximately 54 minutes into the video) he comes to the famous tale of attempting to stab another teenager to death with a camping knife. From there he tells of locking himself in the bathroom to work the situation out with God, reading heavily in the book of Proverbs, and gaining mastery over his temper from that point on.

There are plenty of historical doubts about this one: Carson has recently claimed that his would-be victim is still alive, a member of his family, and in somewhat regular contact with him to this day. That would narrow it down to his brother, one of his Bostonian cousins on his mother’s side… or, as some have suggested, a figment of his imagination. At the end of the day though, this doesn’t seem to be all that critical an issue. Another African-American hero coming out of the ghetto and succeeding in life through his unique skills is Professor Cornel West. Dr. West speaks of being intellectually saved by being sent to school in “the vanilla side of town”, but spiritually being saved by receiving the love of God by way of his family and those at Shiloh Baptist Church. With less specifics given in the matter, West speaks of having been a gangster before meeting Jesus, and now being “a redeemed sinner with gangster proclivities.” In each case, if the hero in question wants to think of himself as a formerly murderous would-be gangster, as long as there are no victims of this gangster past still in need of compensation and closure, do the details really make any difference?

In Dr. Carson’s case the problem is not so much what he did or didn’t do in the years just after he hit puberty, but how he continues to moralize against those who are still stuck in the poverty he was able to escape from –– something Dr. West refers to as being “niggerized”.

The same sort of consideration would apply to Carson’s claims of having been offered a “scholarship” to West Point. Since no students at West Point pay fees or tuition of any sort, it would be fair to say that every student in the history of that institution has been there on a “full scholarship” in some sense of the word. As the student leader of the army ROTC at his high school, with high grades to boot (facts that investigators have not disputed), during the time when the army was trying to lure in as many new promising young leaders as possible to replace those lost in Viet Nam, it would be rather surprising if his professional army supervisors did not try to convince him to stay in the service, promising him the moon and the stars in terms of education in the process. The fact that he never applied, and therefore no offers on paper ever would have been sent to him, are rather beside the point. The fact that his way of describing the episode sounds rather clumsy at best to anyone who knows how America’s institutions of tertiary military education work is also beside the point; it can easily be written off as a ghost writer’s misunderstanding in his attempt to build a legend about the subject. The major question is what Carson was trying to prove in even raising the subject. Perhaps that in spite of his lack of actual adult military experience he was interested in and committed to the culture of the military industrial complex, in case any conservatives might otherwise have doubts about the matter. There seems to be little doubt regarding the truth of that underlying fact of his value orientation here at least. The rest is trivial details.

Was it true that Carson was the only one who fell for a practical joke of being told to sit an especially difficult “make-up exam” for a basic psychology class, with no chance to study? Quite probably. What does such an anecdote say about him –– both that he fell for the joke and that he mixed up so many of the details in retelling the matter afterwards? Perhaps that he was supremely self-confident already then, and that his exaggerated self-confidence is thus more than just “surgeon syndrome” –– the effect of his career on his personality. It also shows a lack of interest in principles of fairness for those who are struggling. After all, if people like his classmates would have been just as honest and hard-working as him…

But it is the last two questions that raise the most serious questions regarding Dr. Carson’s honesty and potential political leadership capacity. Regarding his theory on the pyramids, this shows either a complete lack of respect for scientific expertise –– of the academic, peer-reviewed sort –– in an area of scholarship somewhat distant from his own. It is rather disturbing for a “man of science” to have so little awareness of and respect for other scientific disciplines. For him to base his conclusions on all scientific claims outside of the field of medicine on their compatibility with a literal interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and pre-modern Christian traditional understandings of such things, does not speak very highly of his ability to assess new and process new information. If he, as president, would treat the perspectives of experts in economics, constitutional law, military intelligence, natural resource management and/or domestic infrastructure management with the same aloof disregard with which he relates to experts in Egyptology, the resulting catastrophes could be too horrible to contemplate! On the other hand, if Richard Dawkins is correct, and Dr. Carson really doesn’t believe all the scientifically absurd things he says ­–– he only says them because he knows that is what his less educated Christian fundamentalist followers want to hear –– that might make the case even worse.

And that brings us back around to the matter of Mannatech. In all fairness, Dr. Carson’s speech linked here was given before this company’s scandals properly came to light, and we don’t have any evidence of how he might have changed his tune in this decade after it had been legally and scientifically established that those who were paying his speaking fees there were hucksters of the least respectable sort. But we do know that in spite of this new information he continued to accept payment to speak at their sales meetings in recent years, and that he really couldn’t claim to have done so out of sheer ignorance regarding their operations. Nor, having so thoroughly endorsed their corporate philosophy in this video, and having continued to take their money, could he credibly claim that his face on their web page was some sort of unauthorized use of his image that he hadn’t had time to look into yet.

This points to what is perhaps the corest of Carson’s core values: hating the experience of poverty and doing everything in his power to insure that he never has to experience anything like it ever again. Part of that is keeping actual poor people at a distance and moralizing against their “lifestyle choices” which keep them poor. Part of it is continuously doing high paid publishing and speaking gigs to further feather his retirement nests, even when such gigs might call his intellectual and professional credibility into question. Yes he has generously donated money to try to encourage academic performance in America’s disadvantaged middle schools, by making sure that the best performing students get a prize with his name attached. Yes, he has spoken eloquently about Christian values pointing to some things more important than money. But all the while he has remained focused on being one of the rich who keeps getting richer, while having no qualms about letting the poor get poorer and explicitly blaming those in poverty for their own problems. He continuously faces the challenge of synchronizing this compulsion to “build bigger barns” with the message of Jesus, but fortunately (or unfortunately) for him there are plenty of “prosperity gospel” preachers out there to help him square that circle. The sacrifice they are most likely to ask for in return is in terms of surrendering his intellectual integrity to support their simple answers to complex problems –– things like curing cancer with sugar pills.

Running for president seems to be something Dr. Carson has allowed others to talk him into. He is useful to the oligarchs in terms of supporting their message that the rich should be allowed to get richer and the poor should be allowed to get poorer, and if he can further cement his place as part of the new oligarchy through this gesture, earning a few extra millions in the process, what’s to stop him? None of his major backers really expected anything more than that out of his campaign. They’ve really already got their money’s worth out of him, but if they can keep milking his message for another six months or so, so much the better for them. And if against all expectations he actually does become president (American voters have made crazier decisions) given how little he actually knows about the job, the seasoned oligarchs don’t figure that he’d be too hard to control.

It is those factors, rather than the details of Carson’s teenage rage, that people really need to be paying attention to. Put another way, he admits in the Mannatech video to having an ongoing tendency to take what others see as crazy risks. Given this risk-taking tendency of his, his lack of awareness of how so many non-medical things work, his pathological fear of poverty and his moral condemnation of the poor, how willing should we be to risk him becoming commander-in-chief of the world’s biggest military, and the chief executive of the world’s biggest economy? From there, what kinds of potential tragedies are we talking about if Americans vote to let “Jesus take the wheel” in this sort of way? I rather hope we don’t have to find out.

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Filed under Epistemology, Politics, Pop culture, Religion

Ben Carson for Mayor of Detroit!

The other morning I woke up with this ingenious thought that I thought I should develop and share with the world. That is what I’ve placed in the title here. Frankly I see it as the solution to a whole pile of problems at the same time. I really think this idea needs to be spread around thoroughly, ideally going viral and becoming a mass movement. As an idealistic statement it’s far more realistic than Michael Moore’s “Oprah for President” idea anyway.

I will try to avoid polarizing and polemic language here, because, honestly, I believe that this is an idea where constructive thinkers of good will among both Democrats and Republicans could come on board, and I don’t want to mess that up by presenting the idea either as some flaming liberal or some calloused out-of-touch white guy (even if I might be a bit of both).

The basic idea is relatively simple: We have a formerly major US city that is currently way up “Poop Creek” without a paddle, and we have a world famous brain surgeon (literally) who happens to have been born as a poor black child (literally) within the city in question, who is getting on towards an age where he could comfortably retire from the stressful business of getting rich by cutting open white people’s heads and dealing with their brain problems for them (literally), instead focus the rest of his life on giving something back to “his people” in the broadest sense (literally). Why not bring these two situations together as the best hope for both?

headshot_scrubsBen Carson is already being touted by some political pundits as the next great hope for the Republican Party. A regular performer on the Washington public speaker circuit these days, he gave what some consider to be a particularly inspiring talk at a Washington prayer breakfast last winter, where in front of President Obama and the rest of America’s most important leaders (literally) proposed a set of values and solutions to address Americas “spiritual concerns” which were music to Republican ears. The problem was that he also clearly demonstrated that he had no concept of how political administrations need to work to get things done.

I’d say Detroit would be the perfect training ground for him in this respect. If he were to dive into that project this year or next, at age 62, and if he would succeed in turning that city around, then even at 69 years old I would consider him to be a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination for 2020. But more importantly this year I believe Detroit needs him and he needs Detroit. And let me stress again, even though he more strongly identifies with Baltimore these days, the city in which he built his reputation as a great surgeon, he originally comes from the ghettos of Detroit.

Dr. Carson began his breakthrough prayer breakfast speech quoting from a few verses in Proverbs 11, followed by 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” His great hope is that through prayer, moral discipline and a restored sense of self-belief, American society can be turned around. I believe that if he wants to pursue that vision he should begin by doing so on what might be called a “Gideon scale”: winning a truly miraculous victory on a very local level, and there is no better place for Carson to start than in the city of his birth.

Among the most conspicuous and least tenable ideas that Dr. Carson tossed out in his prayer breakfast speech was that of a flat tax system. His rationale on this was as simple and elegant, and probably as ultimately unworkable, as his tax proposal itself: “When I pick up my Bible, you know what I see? I see the fairest individual in the universe, God, and he’s given us a system. […] So there must be something inherently fair about proportionality. […] Now some people say, ‘Well that’s not fair, because it doesn’t hurt the guy who made ten billion dollars as much as the guy who made ten.’ Where does it say that you have to hurt the guy?”

On a national scale the unintended consequences of assuming that the Old Testament is the ultimate standard for fair and just government could ultimately be disastrous. I won’t even begin to argue that point here. But in Detroit operating on the basis of that sort of standard could be a very good thing! What Dr. Carson’s native city needs is a restored sense of fairness and compassion and belief in its future, based on significant transcendent values. If that city sees its leaders as holding themselves accountable to a higher standard, rather than pursuing whatever personal advantages they can get away with as long as the loopholes of American law allow for them and joining the Romneys in stashing their loot in the Cayman Islands, that could inspire its residents to come together and work to realize these same higher principles.

Heck, let him try to restructure the finances of that city on a flat tax basis. Let him work with the neighborhoods there on a basis of everyone chipping in proportionately. It’s not like he’d end up making their situation any worse, and he could learn some valuable lessons about practical public management in the process.

But more than his conservative fiscal policy theories, Carson has a true zeal for something close to my own heart; something I believe is key to turning around US culture in general and for salvaging Detroit in particular: education. Again from his prayer breakfast speech: “Our system of government was designed for a well-informed and educated populace, and when they become less informed they become vulnerable. Think about that.”

I have thought about that, and I quite entirely agree. I also fully agree with the aims of Dr. Carson’s own personal charitable organization, The Carson Scholars Fund,  which was initiated in the 1990s to address the problems in American education that studies like PISA (which make those of us in Finland’s education system look so good) have pointed out. His goal has been to give “intellectual superstars” the same sort of social status within schools that sports heroes have –– a Quixotic quest if there ever was one, but an incredibly noble one all the same. The basic idea is to pass on to the most vulnerable in society the same sort of hope and vision that Ben Carson himself found as a very vulnerable young man between covers of books that the tax payers provided for him in the Detroit public library!

The ideal of Carson’s scholarship program is not only to build self-reliance, but community involvement among its beneficiaries: “Unless you cared about other people it didn’t matter how smart you were. We got plenty of people like that. We don’t need those. We need smart people who care about other people.” Those they set out to help are “kids who come from homes with no books and they go to schools with no libraries. Those are the ones who drop out, and we need to truncate that process early on because we can’t afford to waste any of those young people. For every one of those people that we keep from going down that path of self-destruction and mediocrity, that’s one less person you have to protect yourself and your family from; one less person you have to pay for in the penal or the welfare system; one more tax-paying productive member of society, who may invent a new energy source or come up with a cure for cancer. They’re all important to us and we need every single one of them.”

Beyond that, Carson sees education as the key to preventing the US from “going down the same pathway as so many pinnacle nations who have preceded us” to self-destruction from within, in spite of their massive military dominance. This has obviously started to happen in America already, but as Carson says, “We can fix it. Why can we fix it? Because we’re smart.”

Dr. Carson’s appeal to Republicans is not only based on his religious ideals and his message of “not accepting helplessness,” but that he is a front line expert in medical matters and health care. The intense and ongoing efforts to block and repeal “Obamacare,” they feel, need a (preferably black) compassionate yet firm and unquestionably well informed human face. This was one of the main issues that Fox (or Faux) News’s Sean Hannity put to Carson in an interview following up on his prayer breakfast performance. To his credit, Dr. Carson replied in terms that largely ignored the bile built into Hannity’s question, with the constructive suggestion that rather than focusing on destroying what they hate, Republicans need to focus on building better alternatives, which shouldn’t be that hard to do. Public health care needs to be arranged in a way that places the emphasis back on local community needs, and on the doctor/patient relationship. He’s probably quite right about that, and Detroit would be the ideal place to start building, from scratch really, a health-care infrastructure based on those principles. While he’s at it he can rebuild the rest of the city’s social service infrastructure in this sort of a way that “puts power back in the hands of the people”.

Republicans have blamed Detroit’s problems on generations of labor union centered Democratic administration. Whether or not that’s a cheap and unfair charge (and I believe it probably is) at this point there’s not much left in terms of entrenched power structures there. The city is ripe for starting over, and rebuilding based on fresh ideas. If there is an idealistic, intelligent and successful black man with a track record of public speaking out about such ideas, who would like to show the world how they would work in practice, Detroit would be just the place for him to do it. In the same Hannity interview he said, ”Part of the problem we’re having right now is that there are a lot of people who lack courage, who always want people to adore them and that just are not willing to take stands based on real convictions.”

Amen! So let’s give him a practical laboratory for putting these educational and economic principles into practice, to show the rest of the country and the world what a difference pride in education and community involvement can make. With the bankruptcy proceedings currently underway in Detroit, let’s insists on emergency replacement of the city’s managers, with an expedited election of a replacement mayor under the supervision of state and federal emergency managers. Let’s come together behind Dr. Ben Carson as the man for this job, not as another political lawyer but as a man focused on fixing things, to give kids very much like him 50 years ago a chance to develop an awareness of their own potential greatness. Let’s let him put his money where his mouth is, not only in helping individual children with promise, but in terms of administrating substantial reform and renewal.

Carson claims to want to follow his mother’s spiritual leadership model. After ignorantly getting married at just 13 years old to a man of very limited integrity, his mother went on to divorce this shyster and raise two sons as a single mother in a ghetto in the troubled times of the fifties and sixties the best way she knew how: by setting very strict rules and high standards, and not accepting excuses for any form of poor performance. This included strict limitations on television and requirements for regular reading and writing outside of school. During his childhood Carson never actually realized that his mother herself was illiterate.

On this basis Carson really has no excuse for distancing himself from Detroit’s problems. Everything he is, and every value he promotes, finds its starting point and its future relevance in what used to be Motown. The fact that it seems unlikely that he could succeed in of solving Detroit’s problems is all the more reason that he should focus on trying to do so! With so much of his rhetoric focused on not accepting excuses for defeat and not being the prisoner of preconceptions, to be consistent about things he really has to apply these ideals to the city of his birth. He might not be able to get away with bluffing as much as his mother did in insisting on high performance from those under his leadership, but that is no excuse for not believing in himself and his city and not trying. Not to try would be worst form of failure in this case. Carson should know this on the basis of being a doctor rather than a lawyer. Back to his prayer breakfast speech, “What do lawyers learn in law school? To win! By hook or by crook, you gotta win. So you’ve got all of these Democrat lawyers and all these republican lawyers and all their side wants is to win. We need to get rid of that. What we need to start thinking about is how do we solve problems.”

I really can see where Detroit doesn’t need more well-meaning white liberals telling it what to do. Detroit needs one of its own –– a kid who grew up poor but somehow made it anyway –– to return and restore a sense of vision, combined with a conviction that none of the little black kids in decaying neighborhoods can be treated as disposable.

So seriously, let’s get a movement started to draft Ben Carson for the job. I know that some of you actually know him. Put this idea to him. Light a fire under him to get him moving on this. Detroit needs him, and the world needs the hope of seeing Detroit rise out of its ashes.

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Filed under Economics, Empathy, Politics, Religion, Risk taking

A Vision of Economic Justice

Sitting and reading the most recent papal encyclical that I am aware of, Caritas in Veritate, I was suddenly flooded with thoughts about “Christian perspectives” on economic issues that have crossed my mind in recent months.  Let me see if I can put some of them together as a coherent personal statement on the matter.

bcarsonI recently read that Dr. Ben Carson has thrown his hat into the ring in terms of Republican presidential politics for the next round three years from now. I really wish I could support him. He is one of the world’s best brain surgeons, literally, and one of the children whose lives he may have saved with this skill is my half-sister. He is a gentle, likeable, funny, immanently confident black man who rose up from a significantly disadvantaged background to be the very best in his chosen field without becoming a total jerk in the process. He also makes no secret of the fact that his Christian faith is a source of personal strength for him, keeping his perspective on life grounded in something beyond his own genius and ambition; which I consider to be a major plus for anyone I’d support as a world leader. But alas, in the prayer breakfast where he set out to launch this political career he began by promoting the idea of a flat tax as opposed to progressive taxation. That says he’s become more concerned with the economic interests of his fellow surgeons than those of single mothers like the one who raised him. In some ways it’s not surprising that he’s more interested in where he has arrived at than where he comes from in that regard, but it still shows a lack of understanding of social justice of the sort I consider necessary for a political leader to grasp before they will get my support.

Nicolas Wolterstorff has pointed out that there are effectively three perspectives that we can take towards poor people in general politically, philosophically and theologically, all of which can have some legitimacy under certain circumstances: First we can consider them to be inherently lazy, not making a strong enough effort to achieve the level of success that so many self-made millionaires have as inventors, entrepreneurs, sports heroes and scientists. If they don’t have what they want and need it’s largely their own fault, and we should give them a swift kick in the seat of the pants to get them moving.

Secondly, we might consider poor people to be just tragically unfortunate, in the same way as someone born blind, or someone going through some of the sorts of disasters that the biblical character Job experienced. Some forms of misfortune just can’t be morally accounted for, and attempts to do so tend to make asses out of those offering the explanations. A case in point is when evangelist/politician Pat Robertson tried to explain the natural disasters that have hit Haiti in recent years as the result of their use of Voodoo religious practices in the process of their struggle for independence from France. If you need an explanation of what is wrong with that, look here; I’m not going to try to explain it beyond confirming that Robertson did indeed make an ass of himself. The proper response in such cases of misfortune should range from relatively helpless empathy to significant efforts at charitable assistance. This, however, is based on the assumption that we don’t actually owe the misfortunate persons anything; we only do so out of the goodness of our hearts, and we can refuse such aid to them if they are not doing as we expect them to.

A third perspective towards the poor, however, is that of many of the early church fathers and the teachings of the gospels: of those to whom much is given, much is justifiably expected, including helping the poor as a matter of duty. As Basil of Caesarea is quoted as saying, “When someone steals a person’s clothes, we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to those who need it; the shoes rotting in your closet to the one who has no shoes. The money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.” 

John Rawls is labeled as one of the most major bad guys of the last generation among those of America’s “Religious Right” these days, mostly because he claimed that political argument should not be based on religious premises, but rather on ideas that any reasonable person could be expected to appreciate, regardless of his or her religious or ideological perspective. This anti-religious political perspective, however, is somewhat a separate matter from Rawls’ economic ideals, which in fact have more than a little bit to do with his training for Christian priesthood before he went through a bit of a crisis of faith as a soldier in World War 2. The conclusions Rawls comes to in his post-Christian perspective is undeniably a bit radical by most other standards than those of the early church fathers: Rawls preaches that the only human inequalities which should be allowed are those which cause society to function better to the extent that even the poorest of the poor are better off as a result. In other words if someone is going to remain significantly richer than others, in order for that person to be allowed to keep those advantages over others he must show how allowing him to be rich is not only good for him, but good for the poor as well.

So for instance Dr. Carson is considerably richer than I will ever be, but allowing him to be so provides a dependable means of paying off the expenses that medical geniuses like him inevitably incur in the process of developing their skill for the good of all, and it provides an incentive for other bright young kids, even those in the ghettos, to work on following in his footsteps. So from Rawls’ perspective it is perfectly justifiable for the surgeon to have significantly more income than, say, the garbage collector, or the philosophy teacher even.  But ideally this advantage should go no further than what is necessary to enable future Dr. Carsons to achieve the sort of greatness we all benefit from. If it is enough to secure these benefits for the rest of society for him to earn fifty times as much as the cleaning lady, there is no justification for him to earn hundreds of times more than the cleaning lady; the difference should only go as far as is necessary to secure the benefits for all that the inequality enables.

popeinsider_640That may sound more than a bit leftist to many who, from a “Christian” perspective consider the ghost of Communism to be a serious threat to watch out for, but in fact the recently retired Pope Benedict XVI was in many regards more explicitly leftist still in his personal economic theory. To lift a few quotes from his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth):

“The world’s wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase. In rich countries, new sectors of society are succumbing to poverty and new forms of poverty are emerging. In poorer areas some groups enjoy a sort of “superdevelopment” of a wasteful and consumerist kind which farms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation. ‘The scandal of glaring inequalities’ continues” (part 21).

“These processes [outsourcing and cheap labor competition] have led to a downsizing of social security systems […] with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State. […] The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine […] for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past” (part 25).

“The dignity of the individual and the demands of Justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner…

“Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution in order to increase the country’s international competitiveness hinder the achievement of lasting development” (part 32).

“Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution” (part 36).

“Economic life […]needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift” (part 37).

“Moreover, the so-called outsourcing of production can weaken the company’s sense of responsibility towards the stakeholders –– namely the workers, the suppliers, the consumers, the natural environment and broader society […] Paul VI [in the 1967 encyclical, Populorum Proggressio, “The progress of peoples”] invited people to give serious attention to the damage that can be caused to one’s home country by the transfer abroad of capital purely for personal advantage. […] [T]he requirements of justice must be safeguarded, with due consideration for the way in which the capital was generated and the harm to individuals that will result if it is not used where it was produced” (part 40).

“The integrated economy of the present day does not make the role of States redundant, but rather it commits governments to greater collaboration with one another. […] In terms of the resolution of the current crisis, the State’s role seems destined to grow, as it regains many of its competences” (part 41).

“The international community has an urgent duty to find institutional means of regulating the exploitation of non-renewable resources, involving poor countries in the process, in order to plan together for the future” (part 49).

“In the search for solutions to the current economic crisis, development aid for poor countries must be considered a valid means of creating wealth for all” (part 60).

“Both the regulation of the financial sector […] and experimentation with new forms of finance, designed to support development projects, are positive experiences that should be further explored and encouraged” (part 65).

“…there is urgent need of a true world political authority […which] would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure for all, regard for justice and respect for rights. Obviously it would have to have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties” (part 67).

“Only if we are aware of our calling as individuals and as a community[…] will we be able to […] muster new energy in the service of a truly integral humanism” (part 78).

So in case you missed it, the retiring pope’s political and economic ideal involves a one world socialist government of sorts, capable of controlling all existing states and with the power to socialize the industrial utilization of all non-renewable natural resources, with the ultimate goal of implementing significant programs of wealth redistribution! This isn’t some conspiracy theory I’ve dreamed up to scare American conservatives; this is a basic summary of the pope’s own words, quoted above. Now in between stating portions of this utopian vision within this encyclical Benedict comes out with statements against abortion and in favor of church involvement in politics that American conservatives have been quoting from it as part of their political campaigns. In the broader context though what he was saying about abortion is that it is a reflection of the evil within parts of society that are not properly submitted to Church doctrine, which in turn prevents his vision of a just international socialist government from being realized in our age. I doubt that many of my social and fiscal conservative Catholic friends have caught the drift of this message.

Now we have a new pope, who so far seems to be signaling a much stronger emphasis on the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church. He is the first pope to have taken the name Francis, for the saint who is known for remaining close to the earth and identifying with the poor. In Argentina he made some of the strongest statements against income disparity of any Catholic bishop since the fifth century. And he may have yet more to prove in that area: In rejecting Latin American Liberation Theology as the authentic voice of the church speaking for the poor, he still has to show that the “mainstream” Catholic Church can take up their cause without taking an explicitly Marxist line in the process. So rather than de-emphasizing these international socialist elements of his predecessor’s teaching, there seems to be every likelihood that Francis I will emphasize them all the more.

There is one quasi-Marxist idea that this encyclical hints at that I fully support however: the link between wealth and labor. Rather than going through historical background and comparison with Benedict’s position on this one though, let me just state what I believe on the subject. Wealth is standardly measured these days in terms of standardized currencies –– money –– which in turn is a purely symbolic implement, deriving its value from what people are willing to give you or do for you in exchange for a given quantity of it. The things that they might give you for some of your money in turn derive most of their value from the effort and skill that went into obtaining the necessary materials and producing the “things” in question. So wealth has less to do with “stuff,” and more to do with the amount of human ingenuity and labor available. The more skilled people you have in the world, the greater the available wealth. Finding enough of the basic “stuff” to work with to produce wealth requires a certain amount of specialized skill these days, but that places no set limit on how much total wealth we can have in the world. As long as we can maintain stable economic interaction between members of a growing pool of skilled producers, we can have a continued growth in wealth.

Rather than scarcity of resources then, the biggest threats to the continued expansion of wealth in the world –– as defined above –– are lack of education and radical inequality between the people involved in economic interaction. Thus I come down strongly in favor of increased investment in public education, based on building investigative and human interactive skills, and putting some functional regulations in place which limit the process of economic polarization within local, national and global economies.

I have my own radical proposal in this regard; not as radical as the pope’s, but radical none the less. I have heard the famous professor of psychology, Howard Gardner, make a similar suggestion to what I have in mind, but I wouldn’t blame my radical ideas on him. If anyone deserves blame it would have to be the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. When they first built this hippie company they had a rule that the top executive could earn no more than seven times as much as the company’s lowest paid employee. Of course they have long since sold out on that one, but the principle still has some merit to it: we need to set some sort of limit in terms of just how much disparity we are willing to accept in our societies and in the world.

Obviously some disparity will remain necessary, as Rawls even has pointed out. In the name of freedom we may even want to allow a bit more disparity that Rawls’ rule would give us, but once we get to the point where some people are getting literally millions of times more than those who work for them, we’re talking about people not even recognizing each other as part of the same species any more. Somewhere in there we have to draw a line as to how much disparity we are morally ready to accept; somewhere greater than the original Ben & Jerry’s factor of seven and somewhat less than the current problem a factor of millions.

As a reasonable starting point for negotiations on such matters then I’d toss out a figure of a factor of a thousand. I don’t think economic motivation requires that anyone would be earning more than a thousand times as much as they are paying others whose skills and labor they are purchasing. If there’s someone out there who can’t be satisfied with a thousand times as much as other human beings have to subsist on, that person is probably too emotionally dysfunctional to play a positive role in human society to begin with. So I’d start with a progressive system of taxation that has a maximum bracket of 50% on the super-rich, up to a maximum of 2000 times the national minimum wage. That would effectively allow the most rich to be taking in 1000 times as much as the working poor.  From that point a 100% national income tax on all income exceeding the 2000 times minimum wage would kick in, so of course no one would be motivated to try to earn more than that. And of course every time the minimum wage would go up, the income ceiling for the ultra-rich would go up as well. If further motivation and means of competition between billionaires is necessary at that point, this can be provided in terms of added contractual benefits, such as armies of personal assistants, access to luxury corporate facilities or contractually required corporate donations on behalf of the valued individual to the charities of his or her choice.

So for instance let’s say that the basic salary of a full-time minimum wage burger flipper some day comes to $20,000 per year, and there is a basketball star whose presence on any given team is capable of boosting that team’s corporate income by over $80 million per year. That’s not entirely unrealistic.  Under the sort of law I’d propose no team could offer that player more than half as much as he would be worth to them, so how would they set about bidding for his services in the market?  Dozens of ways: offering him personal limousine and private jet services, putting members of his family and peer group on staff, sponsoring various young artists of the player’s choosing, building and operating a sports hall in his name in his old home town, building a health clinic in his honor in some needy part of the developing world… The same “perks” could be offered to others who bring in more than such an anti-disparity cap would allow in personal income: bankers, brokers, rock stars, inventors, designers… Rather than trying to further out-do each other in ostentation, they would be pressured to try and out-do each other in philanthropy and in solidarity with broader sections of humanity.

Expanding this rule to apply to all those who would do business within the country would be another step. Companies outsourcing to countries where workers are paid less than a thousandth of the top executives’ pay would be subject to heavy enough fines to keep this practice from being profitable. Heavy tariffs could be levied against any imported product produced by workers making less than a thousandth of what the corporate executives involved in the transaction are making, thus providing a strong incentives to raise miners’ and factory workers’ wages in developing countries. International inspections to improve compliance with such rules would also have the added benefit of drastically reducing problems of covert slavery and child labor abuses in poorer parts of the world. Not only would this go a long ways toward reducing human suffering in such places, it would enable far more young people to get an education and thus increase their capacity and opportunities to contribute to wealth creation that benefits all of us in the long-term.

All of this would be part of a process of recognizing that we really are all part of the same human race, that we are in many real senses part of each other, and that radical predatory selfishness is never a good idea, especially in the long term.

I’m not utopian enough to believe that any globally important politicians will read this essay and pick up the ball and run with it any time soon. I’d be surprised if any representatives of those with vested interests in the status quo would even pay enough attention to this essay to bother attacking my ideas. I toss them out for what they’re worth, with hopes that maybe someday they might play some marginal role in making the world a better place. Here’s hoping together with any of you who share such ideals.

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