Author Archives: Richard

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Godaime Raikage. Sociology of Religion. Japanime. Sports. Liberation. Rod's brother. #AnaBlacktivism

Our Bondage And Our Freedom: on Lent and neoliberalism

William T. Cavanaugh provides an intriguing analysis of modern consumer culture in relation to Christian social norms and morality in his work Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. He addresses many questions that many Christian wrestle with on a daily basis. Namely, how does one embrace the teachings of the Gospel and Christianity in general while simultaneously participating in a culture that espouses an amoral foundation on material consumption? The ramifications of this answer not only have an impact on the local level but globally as well. This question is deeply rooted in articulating the human relationships in the midst of a capitalist society. At times in the United States the culture of consumption seems to be both inescapable as well as inevitable. From this insight another question becomes apparent. What is the true meaning of freedom in a free market economy? Cavanaugh seeks to answer this question in the first chapter.

milton friendman obamasized

He first points to Milton Freidman to identity the traditional notion of freedom in a free market capitalist society.  Friedman believes that freedom comes from absence of external coercion when two parties enter a mutually beneficial exchange of production (pg.2) According to this understanding all exchanges must be voluntary and informed.  Perhaps equally as important is that free market is defined in a negative sense. It is freedom from “eternal coercion.” Many have interpreted this to mean a freedom from state or government intervention.  In other words, freedom here is defined by the absence of external interference which ideally frees the individual to enter upon a mutually beneficial agreement. What is not factored into this notion of free market capitalism is the idea of telos. In relation to capitalism markets telos is broadly defined as common end through which desire is directed.  Every individual who embarks on an agreement according to this view of free market capitalism does so, based on their own individual interest. Neither communal good nor the wellbeing of society as a whole is factored into the decision making process.

 

Cavanaugh next point is to employ the work of St. Augustine as a corrective to this view of the free market. One of the more obvious flaws in Friedman’s view of free market capitalism is that quite often people do indeed enter into exchanges that are not mutually beneficial. One group is exploited while the other group does the exploiting. Perhaps the greatest example of this in modern society is the phenomenon known as global outsourcing.  Cavanaugh notes that many American businesses in the mid-20th century began to move overseas to Latin American countries because labor costs were much cheaper abroad. However, several decades later these same businesses moved again to the Asian continent because they hire laborer even cheaper there. Whereas the cost of production in Latin America was around 60 cents an hour for the average worker, in China that same labor could be outsourced at as low as 12 cents an hour. Compare this salary to the revenue generated from selling these items to American customers and it becomes apparent that this type of free market exchange is not mutually beneficial.

 

I think it is appropriate here to illustrate the exploitative nature of outsourcing through the context of the current season of Lent. Many people celebrate what is known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday for spiritual or secular reason. There are several aspects of this festivity that can be seen as problematic. Particularly, the Mardi Gras beads that are so readily celebrated are the result of exploited Chinese laborer. David Redmon’s documentary Mardi Gras: Made in China, exposes American fetishism of these beads and the paltry condition under which they are made. Workers in these factories, primarily teenage girls, spend 14-16 hours a day laboring over mardigras beads. For all of their efforts they make around sixty-two dollars amount by which they are supposed to support both themselves as well as their families. Redmon even notes how the factory owner states that he does not want more than 10 percent of factory workers to be females because the females are easier to control. The owner also mention how he docks one month’s worth of pay if he catches the workers fraternizing with members of the opposite sex. The list of exploitative practices could go on. Suffice to say Friedman’s notion of free market freedom does not provide the sort of freedom that he hoped for when it is practiced. Freedom from something in a free mark capitalist society is certainly not freedom from exploitation.

 

Augustine fits into this equation because for him freedom is not merely from something but for something. Freedom is the ability to work towards a common good or telos. Everything that we do should be for a greater good and to serve a greater purpose. For Augustine this good is deeply connected to God. All interactions and relationships should connect God’s goodness to society at large. This has implications on how to understand telosin relation to free market capitalism. Model of production as well as economic relationships should be based on the telosof promoting God’s goodness for anyone who considers themselves a Christian. This means that one has to recognize the exploitative nature of free market capitalism as articulated by Milton Friedman. Outsourcing labor that leaves one group at a gross disadvantage does not promote God’s goodness. God’s goodness is revealed through the divine equality that everyone shares. This should be reflected in human relationships. So what does it mean for a person to understand an economic system with a conception of telos?

 

Cavanaugh at various points in his work makes several recommendations on how to conceive an economic system while having in mind, what end that economic system should meet. As previously noted for Christians this telosshould be towards the purpose of serving the greater good, articulated as God.  There are many ways this can be accomplished however; I would like to emphasize one that I think is particularly important towards understanding freedom. Individual practices can be the way that any person can participate in their own liberation. What Michel Foucault calls practices of freedom can help to navigate a Christian perspective of how to view a free market system as freeing. Foucault’s notion of practices of freedom is the process by which an individual’s employ practices aimed at alleviating their own domination. According to Foucault oppression is not solely an institutional process. As such it cannot solely be attacked at an institutional level. It is up to individuals as well as communities to fight oppressive forces. For Foucault when oppression is examined through the lens of the individual it is more aptly termed domination. Individuals alone may not be able to overthrown oppressive systems but that does not mean they have to play a role in their own domination. Through using specific practices the individual is able to exercise agency in the midst of oppression or domination. In other words, through practices they are able to acquire their own sense of freedom

 

Free market capitalism as well as many other economic systems are so easily linked with exploitation that individuals lose any sense that they may be able create change. Thus it is imperative that individuals recognize their own agency in these situations. It is equally important that individuals realize that they do not have to contribute to their own domination. Practices of freedom can include education, speaking out against exploitative practices etc. It is the responsibility of every Christian to also engage in these practices of freedom as well. Through participating in practices of freedom Christian can actively work toward the telos that Augustine describes and that is necessary for a Christian understanding of economic relationships in a free market society.

(Photo description: Obama-ized photo of Milton Friedman where half of the photo background is red, the other blue. The words “FREEDOM” appear in text across the bottom. Found on Flickr.)

The State of the Union. A response. #SOTU

President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union Address shed light on various issues that the United States faces today. One of the more controversial ones is immigration reform. President Obama has repeatedly stated the current system is broken and that nothing short of complete reform can fix it. In this vein he has decided to take executive actions amid at helping build a system that allows America to live up to its heritage as a nation founded by immigrants. Regardless of what one thinks about the President’s initiative it is important for each American to understand some of the complexities associated with immigration. Of particular importance is to understand several of the economic aspect that is associated specifically with undocumented workers. Through a better understanding of some of the economic issues associated with undocumented workers it is possible to think through appropriate responses from various perspectives including a theological one.

In developing an analysis of undocumented workers of the United States I have chosen to use true cost economic theory. True cost economics evaluates goods or services while also taking into consideration negative externalities. Negative externalities are the costs of the harmful effects of a good or service on the environment etc. (“True Economic Cost,”The Economic Times, 2015). Taking this into consideration allows one to consider how a good or service can be misused in large quantities without concern for its effect on the environment. As a caveat, any analysis of immigration from an economic perspective has its limitations because human capital although it can function as other forms of capital such as social or economic is inherently different. There is a different set of concerns that one must take into consideration when thinking about undocumented workers. For this reason true cost economics has a twist from a theological perspective as it relates to immigration. As part of the working definition of true cost economic negative externalities should also involve the cost that immigration policies has on moral sensibilities. Negative externalities consider the impact of undocumented workers policies on Christian/ religious values. Ultimately, true cost economics from a theological perspective should involve the moral cost of a good or service. This is especially true when good is used as a generic term to help analyze human relations with respect to economic production.

As debates ensue on the particularities of reforming immigration policies it becomes more important to understand some of its many complexities. Typically when evaluating an issue from an economic stand point a cost-benefit is used. Such an analysis can be helpful here when trying to understand some of the intricacies of undocumented workers. First, it is important to dispel some of the misconception of undocumented workers. Perhaps one of the biggest myths is that no one benefits from the use of undocumented workers. Many have stated that undocumented workers are exploiting the American economy and reaping all of the benefits from hard working tax paying United States citizens. Law Professor Francine Lipman has stated that undocumented workers have actually bolstered the U.S. economy in several ways. They invest in the economy through their purchasing of goods and services and the consumption of various products has actually created more jobs in some respect. Also, contrary to popular belief they do in fact contribute to social security, Medicaid and unemployment programs without being able to fully reap their benefits (Francine J. Lipman, “Taxing Undocumented Immigrants: Separate, Unequal and Without Representation,”Harvard Latino Law Review,Spring 2006).

These immigrants pay social security pay roll taxes without being eligible for the benefits of social security. What many do not know is that each year the United States reserves around seven billion dollars in social security earing in what is called “earnings suspense file.” This money is reserved for W-2 files that cannot be connected to a social security number. This money is usually attributed to illegal worker who never see any of this money (Robert Mcnatt and Frank Benassi, “Econ 101 on illegal immigrants,” BloombergBuisnessweek, April 6, 2006). Another common myth about undocumented workers is that immigrants are taking all of the American jobs and subsequently hurting the economy. These immigrants do indeed consume a large portion of low-skilled labor jobs. However, many American benefit from their consumption of low-skilled and low paying jobs. The cost for food in most restaurants, agricultural products, and various goods has decreased as a result of employer’s ability to pay illegal immigrant far less than American workers. In fact, the negative impact of undocumented workers on the economy is far less than the impact of automated machinery with respect to job displacement. Another benefit of undocumented workers is the de facto effect it has on the American wage labor system. The income of undocumented workers is spent relatively quickly because in many instances banking systems and other services customary to most Americans is not a viable option. This means that the income of undocumented workers does not factor into the earning potential of American workers. In fact employers have the ability to raise the minimum wage of the average worker because of the money they save from paying undocumented workers substantially less .It is estimated that approximately eight million jobs are dependent on the employment of undocumented worker labor (Bureau of Labor Statistic in the United States Department of Labor, News Release, January 16, 2015). This serves as brief overview of some of the economic benefits from of undocumented workers.

Equally important to this analysis is an overview of some of the economic costs of undocumented workers. It has already been established that the majority of Americans would not notice the economic cost of undocumented workers. Various researchers have noted that those without a college education would be the only group that would be dramatically affected by a reduction of undocumented workers with respect to employment. It has been noted by the Center for Immigration Studies that in the year 2000 the influx of undocumented workers had reduced the wages of American workers without a high school diploma by almost eight percent (George Borjas, “Increasing the Supply of Labor Through Immigration: Measuring the Impact on Native-born Workers,” Center for Immigration Studies, April 2004). Another aspect of undocumented workers that is often discussed is its impact on the education system. According to the Congressional budget office as late as 2008 undocumented workers made up approximately four percent of the students in the public education system. It is also a fact that many of these students require ESL classes and extra assistance in other course work to be successful. This causes an added economic burden on the public education system. There are also various studies that explain how costly it can be to detain undocumented workers. The issue of undocumented workers and health care has also become a critical issue for many. According to recent studies less than one percent of Medicaid spending has went to undocumented workers. Although these immigrants typically are not eligible for the benefits of Medicaid they do receive emergency medical care via Medicaid (Will Dunham, “Medicaid spends 1 pct on illegal immigrants: study,” Reuters, March 13, 2007 ). This means that undocumented workers do place a financial burden on the health care system albeit a relatively light one.

What can we derive from this brief cost-benefit analysis of undocumented workers, for this a return back to true economic cost theory is necessary. It definitely appears that there are certain economic benefits for our current undocumented workers policies. It could even be argued that the benefits outweigh the cost of undocumented workers. It also appears that some of the associated costs have been exaggerated by public perception. However, both these cost and benefits must be weighed against some of the negative externalities. Another observation that can be made from this brief analysis is regardless of the cost and benefits undocumented workers the group that suffers the most are the immigrants themselves. The benefits from undocumented workers can at best be described as exploitative of the immigrant labor force. Simultaneously, although the cost of undocumented workers has a somewhat negative impact on the economy it is the immigrants that suffer the greatest harm from its negative effects. This occurs in the form of lower educational attainment, fewer employment opportunities, and few health benefits. In essence fewer opportunities in what has been historically described as the land of opportunities. The exploitative nature of current immigration policies qualifies as negative externality and has implications from a theological perspective.
So what can Christian religious values teach us about how to deal with undocumented workers policies in relation to a cost-benefit analysis? Truthfully this depends on who you ask. While the specifics of an adequate policy will not be discussed here it can start by asking the right question about how to limit the effects of negative externalities. For this a turn to Luke 10: 25-37 is helpful here. This particular passage is the infamous parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is asked “who is the neighbor,” at which point Jesus tells the parable to explicate what precisely a neighbor is. Perhaps this is the question that Christian should ask themselves first as they evaluate the issue of undocumented workers and its policy implications. Through asking this question first it is possible to put the negative externalities at the forefront of an analysis of undocumented workers
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Political Theology Reconfigured

Vincent Loyd’s work, The Problem With Grace discerns some of the complex interplay between African American theological perspectives and modern political estates. His first aim is to dispel the methodology that relies upon supersessionist foundations to oppose law and grace. He accomplishes this by analyzing specific religious concepts within both the Jewish and Christian faith. He also relies upon heavily sources outside of traditional conception of theology using both theoretical and literary texts. Lloyd questions the notion that the world is composed of some fallen world in need of redemption. This grace and law narrative is allegorized for the African American context through the story of Grace Mulligan on the Manderlay plantation. The story begins in 1933 when Mulligan stumbled upon a plantation in which the African American living there did not know that slavery was abolished. Grace abolished the plantation law that had governed the slave’s lives and instituted a democracy. While initially successful, the community after a period of time delved into a system predicated on rivalry, suspicion and bloodshed. Grace, who had come to replace the law, eventually flees the plantation because of the unintended consequences that she created. According to Lloyd it is supersessionist logic that led to the demise of the community which was most evident when grace replaced the law. Thus he finds it more relevant to examine society relative to social norms as opposed to a society in need of grace to fulfill the law. This examination occurs through a robust description of various religious concepts and theological virtues relevant to the Christianity such as: faith, hope, love, liturgy, prophesy, and tradition. One concept that I found his analysis particularly relevant to was the virtue of faith.

Lloyd states that love is an exercise for navigating the social world. The challenges and frustrations of social and political life are condensed into how we view the love relationship. Simply stated to truly love is difficult and full of uncertainties. For him what forms the basis for love however is faith. Faith gives us the ability not to walk away from loves despite all of the trial and tribulations that accommodate it. Faith entails a commitment to love even when there are good reasons not to. He strays away from the notion of faith that is commonly associated with a belief in something or someone. In his words “faith is about improper beliefs, beliefs that go beyond what ought to be believe.” Most importantly faith runs counter to social norms. This faith accordingly is able to trump all authority that is generated from societal norms. It even calls for reprimand of those societal structures and norms. I find this view of faith helpful especially when addressing the myriad of issues that we face in our contemporary society. It is possible using this view that we can challenge social and systemic structures that oppress a variety of issues.

Faith as a virtue goes beyond a mere belief in a deity or a higher power. True faith is critical of socio-political structures. This virtue has particularly been important for African Americans in the United States. Whether it was Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights struggle or modern Civil Rights leaders who struggle against the militarization of police states, policies that perpetuate racism, classism, sexism, and heteronormativity; faith has played an important role in countering these structures. Faith can promote social action and change. It is the backbone behind the love ethic that is necessary to fight for these changes. Martin Luther King fought for equality and gave his life for the freedom of all people out of love. However, deeply rooted in his love ethic was his faith that love creates the changes necessary to transform society.