This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Capitalism and the Bible.


This is an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal.  Since the author misrepresents the Bible, I felt compelled to respond.  I have inserted my comments into the article using a different font.  Interestingly enough, this Rabbi, by applying wildly self-serving interpretations of the Bible, shows himself to be a severe relativist.  The technical term for what he is doing is “eisegesis.”  It means reading your own views into the text, as opposed to hearing what the text itself says.

“What the Bible Teaches About Capitalism”
Wall Street Journal, January 30, 2012

By Aryeh Spero

Who would have expected that in a Republican primary campaign the single biggest complaint among candidates would be that the front-runner has taken capitalism too far?  As if his success and achievement were evidence of something unethical and immoral?  President Obama and other redistributionists must be rejoicing that their assumptions about rugged capitalism and the 1% have been given such legitimacy.
1.     “Success and achievement” is not what people are criticizing in Romney.  It is the practice of gutting companies and slashing jobs in order to generate a huge profit for investors.
2.     The real “redistributionists” are those who have rigged the system to ensure that ever more wealth flows in their direction by means of tax breaks, subsidies, interest gains, and speculation.  Wealth is being redistributed upward from those actually doing the work, to those playing with paper.
More than any other nation, the United States was founded on broad themes of morality rooted in a specific religious perspective.  We call this the Judeo-Christian ethos, and within it resides a ringing endorsement of capitalism as a moral endeavor.
This is just plain false.  There are dozens of nations rooted in the specifically Islamic religious perspective; and many nations founded in the Middle Ages in Europe were founded on Christian religious principles.  Not to mention Israel….  Then there are the Buddhist nations like Tibet, Nepal, Burma, etc.  There is no way to measure “more than any other nation” on this.  It is just plain self-righteous, not to say ignorant, hubris to make this claim.
Regarding mankind (sic.), no theme is more salient in the Bible than the morality of personal responsibility, for it is through this that man cultivates the inner development leading to his own growth, good citizenship and happiness.  The entitlement/welfare state is a paradigm that undermines that noble goal.
1.     Certainly the Bible favors an ethic of personal responsibility.  We see this all over the place from the 10 Commandments to the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12.  However, Rabbi Spero appears to imply that this is purely individualistic, as if each one is personally responsible for her/himself alone.  On the contrary, the Bible is about the establishment and maintenance of a community: Israel and the Church.  Importing Modern individualistic categories into the Bible is anachronistic and contradicts the heart of the Bible’s communtarian message of mutual responsibility.  In the Bible you are not primarily responsible to yourself, but to God; and this responsibility is always worked out in the context of the community.  God’s implied response to the murderer Cain’s cynical rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is “You’re damn right you are.” 
2.     As far as no theme being more salient, the them of justice appears on almost every page and is far more “salient,” that is, prominent, than personal responsibility.  In the Bible, personal responsibility is only a value when it serves justice.

The Bible's proclamation that "Six days shall ye work" is its recognition that on a day-to-day basis work is the engine that brings about man's inner state of personal responsibility.  Work develops the qualities of accountability and urgency, including the need for comity with others as a means for the accomplishment of tasks.  With work, he becomes imbued with the knowledge that he is to be productive and that his well-being is not an entitlement.  And work keeps him away from the idleness that Proverbs warns leads inevitably to actions and attitudes injurious to himself and those around him.
1.     The point of “six days shall you work” is the limitation.  Only six days are for working, as opposed to Pharaoh’s economic regime which had the Israelites working seven days.  It is interesting to note that, without regulation, capitalism also has people working seven days for next to nothing in wages.  Indeed, the pinnacle of capitalism, capitalism in its most perfect form, was slavery.

2.     On the one hand, work is something that is imposed upon people by the sin of Adam (Genesis 1:17-19).  That being said, we make the best of work by performing responsibly according to God’s laws.

3.     In fantasy-capitalism, hard work is rewarded.  In actual practice the people who are rewarded the most are those who work the least: the rich who live off the work of others.  I know lots of people who work hard and contribute essential things to the society (like teachers) who do not make as much money as many whose life is spent in wasteful leisure and yet whose incomes stretch to 7 or more figures.  I hold that one trash collector makes more of a positive contribution to society than a bond trader who works much less hard but makes a million times more money.

Yet capitalism is not content with people only being laborers and holders of jobs, indistinguishable members of the masses punching in and out of mammoth factories or functioning as service employees in government agencies.  Nor is the Bible.  Unlike socialism, mired as it is in the static reproduction of things already invented, capitalism is dynamic and energetic.  It cheerfully fosters and encourages creativity, unspoken possibilities, and dreams of the individual.  Because the Hebrew Bible sees us not simply as “workers” and members of the masses but, rather, as individuals, it heralds that characteristic which endows us with individuality: our creativity.
1.     Spero only knows an imaginary “socialism,” a straw man he has invented to easily knock down, but which has little or nothing to do with actual or even theoretical socialism.  Equating capitalism with creativity is silly: I don’t have time to give examples of creative people and initiatives emerging from non-capitalist societies.  Furthermore, capitalism is about money and money tends to squash real creativity in favor of selling out to the market.  Barely any creative initiatives in music or art grew out of capital-endowed people.  From jazz to hip-hop to rock-n-roll to impressionism to just about any movement in the arts, they emerge from poor people working in abysmal conditions.  Plus, most of the creative people I know of are not conservatives.  Places where creative people congregate can be relied upon not to vote Republican. 
2.     The “creativity” at which capitalism is most proficient is the rape and pillage of the earth and people.  It has invented ever more ingenious ways to do that, I will admit.  And then there’s the mindless creativity it took to invent instruments like the credit default swap that only serve to enrich speculators while poisoning the community, and the market, I might add.

At the opening bell, Genesis announces: “Man is created in the image of God”—in other words, like Him, with individuality and creative intelligence.  Unlike animals, the human being is not only a hunter and gatherer but a creative dreamer with the potential of unlocking all the hidden treasures implanted by God in our universe.  The mechanism of capitalism, as manifest through investment and reasoned speculation, helps facilitate our partnership with God by bringing to the surface that which the Almighty embedded in nature for our eventual extraction and activation.
1.     Life is a boxing match (“opening bell”)?  Only a capitalist would characterize life or the scriptural story in such inherently adversarial and violent terms.
2.     The wanton exploitation of the planet and its resources for the sake of enriching a few is nowhere authorized in the Scriptures.  It also goes against everything Jesus ever said or did.  Jesus has several parables that clearly indicate the consequences of wrecking the vineyard placed in our care.  “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all that dwell therein,” (Psalm 24:1) means that it all belongs to God, not to humans to do with as they please.  The idea that God gave us the planet to plunder for the sake of making a few people obscenely wealthy is an abomination.
Capitalism makes possible entrepreneurship, which is the realization of an idea birthed in human creativity.  Whereas statism demands that citizens think small and bow to a top-down conformity, capitalism, as has been practiced in the U.S., maximizes human potential. It provides a home for aspiration, referred to in the Bible as "the spirit of life."
Like there’s no “top-down conformity” in capitalism….  That’s all it is.  It maximizes the potential of capital and those who have it.  Capital will squash any creativity that threatens the regime of whomever possesses it.
The Bible speaks positively of payment and profit: "For why else should a man so labor but to receive reward?"  Thus do laborers get paid wages for their hours of work and investors receive profit for their investment and risk.
That laborers deserve to be paid is a Biblical value.  Capitalism however believes in paying workers as little as possible so as to maximize profits.  And investment and risk are emphatically not Scriptural values.  How could they be when they are about gaining wealth from someone else’s labor?  According to the Bible, people work not to gain a reward in money and material goods, but to glorify and enjoy God, and improve life for all.
The Bible is not a business-school manual.
Well, clearly not for this critic, anyway.  He has conveniently rationalized his choice not to be guided by Scripture, which he has to do if he is to retain his capitalist perspective.  Clearly, somewhere deep-down, he knows the Bible is incompatible with his philosophy.  I suggest we not attend any school where the Bible is not in some sense the manual.
While it is comfortable with wealth creation and the need for speculation in economic markets, it has nothing to say about financial instruments and models such as private equity, hedge funds or other forms of monetary capitalization.
The Bible is only “comfortable with wealth creation” when the wealth is created in the service of God’s law for the benefit of the whole community.  I have yet to find anything in Scripture expressing “comfort” with “the need for speculation in economic markets.”  That’s just lying about the text.
What it does demand is honesty, fair weights and measures, respect for a borrower's collateral, timely payments of wages, resisting usury, and empathy for those injured by life's misfortunes and charity.
Left on its own capitalism failed miserably on each of these.  Without rigorous regulation forcing capitalism into some moral framework it wouldn’t happen.  We know this because of what the system was like before people mustered the power to impose such regulations.  Think Dickens.  Without “statist” regulation we’d all be living in Love Canal.  (And only a capitalist would imagine that someone could be “injured” by “charity”… or maybe he forgot a comma.  Freudian slip?)
It also demands transparency and honesty regarding one's intentions. The command, "Thou shalt not place a stumbling block in front of the blind man" also means that you should not act deceitfully or obscure the truth from those whose choice depends upon the information you give them. There's nothing to indicate that Mitt Romney breached this biblical code of ethics, and his wealth and success should not be seen as automatic causes for suspicion.
“Transparency and honesty.”  Is he kidding?  On what planet?  Ever try to find out who really owns this or that business or corporation?  Ever pay any attention to advertising?  Insider trading?  Price fixing and manipulation?  Deceptive fine print in contracts?   Banks foreclosing on houses they don’t even own?  Secret donations to political candidates?  Need I go on?  Capitalism knows neither transparency nor honesty unless forced by government regulation.
No country has achieved such broad-based prosperity as has America, or invented as many useful things, or seen as many people achieve personal promise.  This is not an accident.  It is the direct result of centuries lived by the free-market ethos embodied in the Judeo-Christian outlook.
America’s prosperity has had many causes.  We have enjoyed open immigration policies.  We were blessed with a wealth of resources.  And we were willing to invest as a people in infrastructure and education, two things conservatives think we can do without or should privatize.  Furthermore, markets in capitalism are only “free” for people with capital, who work to build monopolies that bind markets.  The government had to enact anti-trust legislation to keep markets relatively free.  There is no “free market ethos embodied in the Judeo-Christian outlook.”  Jesus had nothing good to say about markets.  He advises people to avoid them and he causes a disruption in the Temple because he saw it being turned into a marketplace.
Furthermore, only a prosperous nation can protect itself from outside threats, for without prosperity the funds to support a robust military are unavailable.  Having radically enlarged the welfare state and hoping to further expand it, President Obama is attempting to justify his cuts to our military by asserting that defense needs must give way to domestic programs.
1.     North Korea is an example of an unprosperous country that nevertheless manages to have a strong military.  It can be done if the regime pours enough national resources into armaments, even if it means famine for the people.  Spero alludes to another sad fact about capitalism which is that it is inherently militaristic and thrives on war.  It needs the offering of a constant human sacrifice of war to survive.  We’ve arguably been on a war-economy since 1940 and can’t get off it; the economic cost would be too high.  Thus we now sink far, far more into armaments than any other nation.  It has become an idol, an addiction we can’t shake.  Heck, the military doesn’t even want some of the weapons systems the congress authorizes!  The implication here that we don’t spent enough on the military proves my point.  We already spend more than the next five nations combined.
2.     And his assumption that “domestic programs” are badThe economy is based on the work and spending of the middle class.  When too much of the value of their labor is being skimmed off the top by the rich, the middle class doesn’t have enough money to buy things.  It can borrow money from those same rich people, which they prefer since they get even richer that way; but that only works until there is a crash, a la 2008.  And the middle class is left with devalued investments and underwater mortgages.  And if the government doesn’t have enough money, because it has cut the taxes of the rich for decades, it can’t support the infrastructure or the educational needs of the people, thus further keeping the middle class down.
Both history and the Bible show the way that leads.  Countries that were once economic powerhouses atrophied and declined, like England after World War II, once they began adopting socialism.  Even King Solomon's thriving kingdom crashed once his son decided to impose onerous taxes.
1.     The idea that the British Empire fell because they cut military spending and invested in their people is idiotic.  What?  Were they supposed to maintain their empire by force of arms, even when millions of people wanted to be free?  What this really proves is that capitalism works best, not when there is a free market, but when there are enslaved peoples who work for low wages and who are forced to buy from their conquerors at high prices.  That’s the essence of colonialism. 
2.     Solomon’s kingdom survived long enough for him to pass it on to his son, Rehoboam.  It eventually fell for a lot of reasons, mainly idolatry and injustices like the use of forced labor, which is why all regimes eventually fall.  I find no mention of taxes; the word is not used in 1 Kings at all.  (So he’s lying about what the Bible says again.)  In other words, the British Empire and Solomon’s kingdom did fall for the same reason: they oppressed workers.

At the end of Genesis, we hear how after years of famine the people in Egypt gave all their property to the government in return for the promise of food.  The architect of this plan was Joseph, son of Jacob, who had risen to become the pharaoh's top official, thus: "Joseph exchanged all the land of Egypt for pharaoh and the land became pharaoh's."  The result was that Egyptians became indentured to the ruler and state, and Joseph's descendants ended up enslaved to the state.

In order to avoid famine, Joseph advises Pharaoh to impose a tax on the people.  If that did not happen, many would have perished in the famine, including Joseph’s family.  End of story.   This strategy led to Pharaoh’s ownership of the whole country.  The Israelites became slaves a generation later explicitly because of Egyptian racism and nationalist paranoia.  Another gross misrepresentation of the text.

Many on the religious left criticize capitalism because all do not end up monetarily equal—or, as Churchill quipped, "all equally miserable."  But the Bible's prescription of equality means equality under the law, as in Deuteronomy's saying that "Judges and officers . . . shall judge the people with a just judgment: Do not . . . favor one over the other."  Nowhere does the Bible refer to a utopian equality that is contrary to human nature and has never been achieved.
In many decades of experience on the left I never heard anyone advocate or expect absolute monetary equality.  Another convenient straw-man.  The Bible doesn’t expect it either.  But the Sabbath and Jubilee laws of Leviticus 25 are designed to prevent a large gap from developing between the rich and everyone else.  We could tolerate a CEO making maybe 30 times what an average worker makes, but not 350, as we have now.  When the top 400 individuals have as much wealth as the bottom 150,000,000, something is out of whack.  It’s unsustainable.  It’s also unbiblical.   
The motive of capitalism's detractors is a quest for their own power and an envy of those who have more money.  But envy is a cardinal sin and something that ought not to be.
I can’t imagine how he knows the motives of capitalism’s detractors.  Maybe he’s omniscient.  Envy is a “cardinal sin” (for Catholics!); it is also, along with greed, gluttony, avarice, lust, sloth, anger, and pride necessary and essential attitudes for capitalism to work at all.  The economy would sputter to a halt tomorrow without them.  Imagine advertising that didn’t appeal to these qualities.  Imagine investors not motivated by them.  Capitalism reframes these sins and calls them virtues, the theory being that is everyone lets their avarice and greed, etc., go unchecked they will cancel each other out and everyone will benefit.  In real life the people with power and capital benefit, and everyone else pays.  Capitalism is under attack now not because of envy but because of the criminal excesses of the banning industry, coupled with the fact that due to their own rampant greed the wealthy did not let enough wealth trickle down to placate the rest of us.  
God begins the Ten Commandments with "I am the Lord your God" and concludes with "Thou shalt not envy your neighbor, not for his wife, nor his house, nor for any of his holdings."  Envy is corrosive to the individual and to those societies that embrace it.  Nations that throw over capitalism for socialism have made an immoral choice.
1.    Huh?  Socialism follows the Biblical principle that there should be no excessive accruing of wealth and power to the few.  America has always believed that those who benefit the most from a society should pay more for its upkeep.  In the Scriptures, the prophets are generally critical of the ruling class and their penchant for idolatry which leads inexorably into injustice.  The prophets that tried to rationalize the power of the powerful were considered false.
2.     But we are not faced with a choice of either capitalism or socialism.  We need to have an economy that works for the broad majority of people and will certainly incorporate the better elements of both, and perhaps other, systems. 
3.     His comments on socialism transgress the 9th Commandment about “bearing false witness against your neighbor.”

In his attempt to suck up to power and get himself published in the WSJ, Spero demonstrates a better understanding of which side of his bread is buttered than he does of the Scriptures.  And by telling the WSJ audience that what it wants to hear is based on the Bible, he denigrates God’s Word and leads his readers astray.  May God have mercy on his soul.

Rabbi Spero has led congregations in Ohio and New York and is president of Caucus for America.

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