16 Responses to Pop Quiz

  • Mark DeFrancisis says:

    “Our taxes going to the needy, however beneficial it might prove, is an abrogation of the human will towards charity. It not only bereaves us of the choice of where our money goes, but it also stunts the growth of charity in our souls.”

    That’s funny!

    You caricature the Right very well…

    “As a note, Senator Obama—like many on the left—seems to have little to no faith in human charity.”

    I know. Does not he see how little the poor need anyone beyond individual givers, uniting outside of the government? Case in point. Latin American countries under right wing dictators…the usa…

  • Ryan Harkins says:

    So Mark, do you believe the populace at large incapable of charity? Or if not, perhaps you can enlighten us as to how exactly we’re supposed to provide for the poor.

    Frankly, I can’t see how leaving people with their money to choose to spend/donate as they deem right is a bad thing. Even if they waste the money on trinkets or fast food, that’s jobs for people. Take that money away, that decreases the number of jobs available, which makes more poor. Handouts don’t cover what a steady job can provide.

    But you might have a different viewpoint. Please, enlighten us.

  • Eric Brown says:

    I personally know someone in my family who made some unwise decisions, got pregnant, lost her job and healthcare insurance for not being able to work (her healthcare was attached to her job). The man who got her pregnant is a deadbeat. So, she set her eyes on abortion. Luckily, she has a pro-life Catholic in her family and together, we made the decision that she shouldn’t do that.

    She’s received about 200 dollars a month from the government on unemployment. Many in our family contributed what they can to assist her with her baby that was born in July.

    My point? There was no way that this “redistribution of wealth” in anyway really changed the playing field. Or, what if that “redistribution” made it easier for people to be like me — the first in an entire family to go after higher education. It costs $30,000 a year to receive the education I do. My mother makes just about that much in a year. How many youth with potential are barred from going to school because of skyrocketing costs?

    It seems to me that even if I knew that the government would be assisting people, it would no in way bar me from doing charity. I think the notion that the government doing some of the work will prevent people from doing charity is absurd. The reason people don’t give charitably is selfishness — it’s not because someone else is doing it. Would you stop giving to charity? Would you not stop to help someone because the government gave them a few measely dollars that hardly enables them — even stretching the money — to live even comfortably in this society? Do you remember when minimum wage was $5.15? Have you ever watched a family struggle making it by on such a salary?

    Obama seems to have little faith in human charity. Maybe. But as far as the rich giving to charity, the amount they give is hardly a dime in terms of the money they have. What is $2 million dollars to Bill Gates?

    Moreover, I dare to ask how fair is the economic system we have. It’s fundamentally social Darwinism — survival of the fittest. It’s a system of unrestricted competition and it’s the very reason why a small few can set a monopoly on money and get richer, usually without doing anything. Perhaps, all it takes is nothing but an investment.

    But how is such a system that is naturally disadvantaged to the poor and lower middle class really compatitible with the Catholic faith? It’s not a natural law approach to anything. It’s a consequentialist ethic — which is in itself moral relativism with another mask. What is good in terms of business usually has more to do with profit, shareholders, and prosperity of that particularly business than with the human dignity and welfare of society. Ultimately, we’re banking on the moral uprighteousness of the private sector just as we’re banking on the moral uprighteousness of the government. All of mankind is fallen from sin. Why should we trust one over the other? Why is one method so much superior to the other?

    Sure you’ll disagree with me, but I think it is something that Catholic Social Teaching is entirely consonant with political conservativism. But political liberalism, or “socialism” is just bad business all over the place. If I’m not mistaken, Catholic teaching is beyond “left” and “right” politics. And though the issue at hand is not “non-negotiable” and thus we can have legitimate disagreement, we’re not both right. Or maybe we’re both wrong.

  • Ryan Harkins says:

    Eric,

    Excellent response, and tough questions to address. I don’t believe that government spending on the poor destroys all charitableness, or that the government shouldn’t spend money to help others. But I do think that government handouts have a tendency to harden hearts towards those receiving handouts, especially here in the U.S. where there is such a culture of individualism that we tend to look down on people in need. Indeed, I struggle a lot with the question of how we can justify railing against higher taxes when there are people in need. Aren’t we just struggling futilely to cling to material wealth, wealth that ultimately means little in the long run? My problem, ultimately, is not whether or not the government should send some tax revenue to aid the poor, but how much it should tax others to do so. How much is enough, and how much is too much? Frankly, if tax cuts increase federal revenue, then why speak at all of “raising taxes out of fairness” even if it means less federal revenue to spend on welfare?

    But the problem of charity is a real one. Certainly there is a problem when half the people you talk to complain about “lazy good-for-nothings, feeding off the government”. Does this mean that the government not giving out welfare will inspire charity? Not by any means. But I do believe there’s a point where the government takes so much and hands it back out to so many others that it starts to wound charity in the hearts of those who are taken from.

    I fundamentally disagree that our economic system is naturally disadvantaged to the poor and the middle class. Maybe that’s because I come from a middle class family, and am in third generation receiving a college education. Maybe it’s because I come from Wyoming, which has very few minorities, and thus I don’t see the discrimination minorities suffer from. Maybe it’s because in Wyoming, you can always work construction, the oil fields, or the coal mines, and make more in a year without a high school diploma than most college graduates make. Or maybe it’s because I’ve seen my father work hard and build a small accounting firm, and has risen from making barely $30K/year to over $60K/year. Maybe its because my family was willing to offer a friend of mine free housing, food, clothes, and even a car for cheap in an effort to help him make it through college. And that friend started from a poor “white trash” (he’ll admit the white trash if you ask him) family, most of which is still in the gutters, not because they can’t haul themselves out, but because they keep wasting all the chances they get.

    The way we think things work undoubtedly comes from what we see growing up. Eric, I’m not sure what all difficulties you’ve had to face in your life, so I can’t necessarily appreciate where you’re coming from. But when I look at the economic system we have, I can’t see a better system for providing the poor with opportunities to rise out of squalor.

    Wealth tends to concentrate on a small percentage of the population? That doesn’t bother me any. Most of those who are wealthy worked their way to it. I think it is a fundamental prejudice to suggest that the rich don’t do anything to earn their wealth. I’ll agree that some don’t, and I’ll agree that some get rich quickly from dirty methods. But those are a scant few among the other hard-working, successful people.

    I could rant about this for hours, but I have work to do, so I’ll let it go there, without having said anything of substance. And I do understand very well the story of the rich man who donated a lot of money to the temple, but only a tiny, tiny fraction of what he had, and the poor woman who gave up her last two talents, and how Jesus praised her before his apostles for the sacrifice she made. There, at least, I can readily agree with you.

  • One interesting group to look at in this regard is the Amish. They refuse both social security, medicare and any form of private insurance because they believe such approaches do not constitute truly “being your brothers keeper”. Instead, each Amish community has its own emergency fund. Everyone is assessed, according to his means, to pay into that fund, and the fund then pays out when families run into problems (medical or otherwise) that result in expenses they can’t meet themselves.

    Now, here’s the thing: Even the most well off know they need to contribute to that fund, not only in order to avoid social and moral ostricization, but also because they know they have no other recourse. If the rich Amish bought insurance, but everyone was supposed to pay into the community fund to help the poor ones who couldn’t afford insurance — I would imagine that it would be a lot harder to get everyone to chip in. People would still have their charitable impulses reinforcing the need to help with the community fund, but their sense of self interest would no longer reinorce that impulse.

    Not that I’m saying I’m eager to give up my insurance…

    What I do think it can show the rest of us, however, is that getting people to participate in charitable/solidarity actions at a serious scale (not a hundred spare dollars once or twice a year, but enough to really cover the needs of those without their own means) relies on a sense of urgent need. If your self interest is brought into play because you rely on the same community fund, that gives urgency. If you know that there are no other options out there, and so if your parish (to pull an example) doesn’t put together a significant scholarship fund, than many of the students from poorer families will simply not be able to go to college — that gives urgency. But if one has the general feeling that there must be an awful lot of programs out there (private and public) already meeting a given need, there’s not much sense of urgency and people tend to keep themselves to themselves.

  • Eric Brown says:

    Ryan,

    I’m not convinced that tax cuts increases federal revenue, in fact, I think the opposite. It’s heatedly debated in political circles. But that’s not our interest here. We’re concerned on how we as Catholics — even as we disagree — can transform the political landscape with millions of other people with whom we agree and disagree. That’s the challenge. Personally, I’m all in favor of the FairTax. But that’s not the current tax system.

    I believe that the government has moral purpose. How the mechanism is used is the fundamental question. It’s difficult to answer. I’m not sure I agree with people having a hardened heart in receiving government “handouts.” I’m sure there are plenty who are grateful. It seems to me that if we had a system where people could receive needed assistance for a specific amount of time — in other words, a transition period — with information forwarded to them to aid them in finding a job and provided evidence that they are searching, I think we would be better off. This would decrease dependency dramatically and encourage self-sufficiency.

    It also seems to me that there are shades of the culture of individualism in saying “this is my money and the poor shouldn’t get it unless I say they can.” People of that sort don’t seem to care for charity — either through the government or themselves. Now surely this doesn’t account for the majority of conservatives. Nevertheless, the question of how much the government should help is one of prudence and that’s not definitively answerable.

    I do share your concern that the government giving out too much can have an adverse effect to some extent. I’ve been in the car with friends who say when they see a homeless person, “the government really ought to do something to help him.” But I don’t think that the lack of charity is contigent on the fact that the government is helping people, but rather it inadvertently reaffirms the lack of charity and moral disordering (for an ordered morality demands charity) that already exists in their own life. And I don’t think that we can avoid doing as much good as we can through the mechanism of the government (without the State exceeding its boundaries) for the sake of unintended consequences. It’s like not standing up against injustice because one fears that it’ll cause an unwanted backlash.

    In terms of our economic system, it depends on if its an unrestricted free-market or a free-market with a few minimal regulations. I favor the latter. I think the former does naturally give advantage to the upper middle class and the rich. I think that there are opportunities for people to rise out of poverty, but I attribute it more to God’s grace than to the system itself. I’m not entirely convinced that most of the wealthy worked their way to it. Just at my school, I see kids with a silver spoon in their mouth who in many ways are totally ignorant of the plight of others. Their parents can easily and readily afford college. Many of them have gone to private school their whole lives–some with tuitions just as high as their college tuition. They are born with all the support they need and with many advantages. What about children born to parents who aren’t as well off?
    Supposedly 60% of the bottom of the socio-economic scale is comprised of single parent households. Statistically children raised in such environments are more likely to do drugs, drink alcohol regularly, to drop out of school, to repeat a grade, to be sexually promiscuous, and the list goes on. I was born into the place on the scale. My grandmother who is 75 years old, to this day works, cleaning houses for two different families. One of which she has worked for her entire life (my grandmother’s family always worked for that family and I believe generations ago was “owned” by that family). The family she has worked for the longest is very wealthy. The lady — Mrs. Moroney — is a very liberal, pro-choice Democrat (she supports government intervention). She also happens to believe in me so much that she is willing to pay all remaining costs of my education — out of pocket — which has totalled over $30,000 by now. This was all generous charity and I am very grateful. But I ask myself to question — of the thousands of people that are born into a similar situation as mine, how many receive the same blessings?

    I’m not saying “let’s have a mass government ‘hand-out’ party,” but that there is some merit to the government assisting people. And yes, I’m looking at all of this through the lens of my own life — and I’d like to think through the lens of the lives of other people who won’t share my blessings. I find it very disheartening when things are just classified as “socialism” and dismissed. It really cuts off rational discourse and creates the endless culture war — this clash of orthodoxies — that we’re experiencing and are all frustrated about. Many Democrats, myself included, aren’t in favor of equal results in life. That’s not realistic. But we do favor an equality of opportunity and currently — and I don’t think anyone would argue this — there is a large disparity in the socio-economic ladder that makes this very difficult. Thus, people should be provided the resources they need — public and private — to help them achieve those means. No, we shouldn’t just subsidize it and give them a free ride and teach them that a lack of personal responsibility is alright; it isn’t.

    But I think a safety net that relies solely on charity in the western world is a recipe for disaster. It won’t happen. And the worse our education gets (its happening), the worse our morals get (its happening), and the more we’re all geared for ruthless competition with one another, we will fall. We’ve got to help as many as we can and I think it requires — at least at this point in history — that the government be involved. That’s my perspective.

  • Tito Edwards says:

    Ryan,

    Would you say that the Amish system is an honest example of the doctrine of subsidiarity and distributism?

    Just a rhetorical question from a die-hard free-market capitalist just learning about Catholic teaching on economics and rethinking his position.

  • Ryan Harkins says:

    Eric,

    As a quick note, I might have been confusing about it, but the “hardened hearts” refer to the people seeing others getting handouts, paying their income into handouts, not the people receiving the handouts.

    I see the growth of government as a necessary effect of the decline of the morals of the populace. As people become less inclined to take care of themselves, the government has no choice but to step in a fill in the gaps. So to some extent I agree that government-funded welfare is a result of uncharitable hearts. I do feel that there’s a feedback in the system, though. As charity decrease, the role of the government increases, further justifying reduction in charity, forcing more government increase, and so on.

    But government exists to be a safety net, so I will never argue against the government providing safety nets. Government exists to protect us from outside threat. We could, perhaps organize that on our own with a bunch of independent militias, but it would be ineffective. Thus it provides a safety net there. Government exists to protect our rights from impinging neighbors. While we might have some success dealing with matters privately, and privately should be our first recourse, the courts exist as a safety-net to assure our rights are preserved. (I just wish they would stop inventing rights at the drop of a hat.) And these are cases that don’t directly touch upon the economic issue we’re talking about. Yes, we cannot count on safety nets that rely solely on charity. That, I believe, is actually called anarchy.

    The government first and foremost has to respect the human dignity of those it governs. Included in human dignity is industry, and compensation for labor. Thus I agree with government policy that regulates the markets so as to prevent monopolies and unjust wages. Thus I also agree with taxes, for I see the government as a body of people also deserving in compensation for their labor.

    The government has the ability to steer us through particular market forces, through taxes and subsidies. It can introduce artificial demands and artificial supply restrictions. And in do so, it can throw the market out of whack.

    Let’s consider colleges, for example. The cost of college is high, true, but its purpose is also to provide a further education and qualifications that make an individual valuable for some select positions in the market. Not everyone needs to go to college. Others can find themselves quite content with trade jobs or as laborers. Not everyone wants to be an executive. I agree, though, that having a college education gives one quite an edge in finding a nice, comfortable, high-paying job, and that many people who would be suited for those positions don’t get the chance because of financial considerations.

    What happens when we subsidize college education? The demand for college increases, as we’ve seen. We’ve struggled to send as many of our youth to college as we can, which in turn increases the demand. The demand is especially for prestigious universities. So what happens to the cost of attending? It goes up. On the flip side, a college needs students for a large portion of its funding, especially private universities that don’t receive state or federal funding. So more students means more funding. Except for the need for more facilities, more professors, more housing, more equipment, and so on. The net result? A mess. Usually the cost of attending continues to soar. At least, that’s how it has been at the University of Wyoming, and this little state university is one of the least-expensive to attend in the nation, even as an out-of-state student.

    Saying that, of course, calls my attention back to your silver-spoon students, who had no clue of the problems people around them suffered. Extrapolating from Wyoming probably makes me one of those, doesn’t it?

    “No, we shouldn’t just subsidize it and give them a free ride and teach them that a lack of personal responsibility is alright; it isn’t.”

    What is the right balance between providing, and enabling sloth? The problem, of course, becomes that the further away from the beneficiary you are, the less capable you are of making that decision. That’s why I feel government should be a last resort, and that family and community should be the first responders. They’re the best ones to know what you need (statistically speaking, anyway).

    To use your benefactor as an example: God bless Mrs. Moroney for her generous donation. Her example definitely supports what you said before about government intervention not preventing charity. But she also, by your very words, justifies my position. She knows you, knows your needs, believes in you, and thus has made a contribution. (You can burn me if I’m speaking out of line, too personal, or such, or if I’m just flat out wrong.) She wouldn’t necessarily do that to someone off the street because she doesn’t know if such a contribution would be worthwhile, what that person actually needed.

    Back to the college example, we don’t know if everyone needs the opportunity to go to college. For some, maybe going to college is the last thing they need. It certainly is telling when you provide a college education, practically free of charge, and many students simply flunk out for lack of care. Maybe it makes more sense to make the last two years free of charge as opposed to the first two. Federal Stafford loans already reflect this: the further you get in college, the more you can borrow.

    The problem I have is that too many of the policies suggested smack of eating the whole harvest without preserving seeds for next year’s planting.

    I would ask, then, what do you view as the ideal economic policy? How would you craft things so that everything works perfectly? I don’t ask this to be flip, but as a serious consideration. For a long time, I was very Ayn Rand-ian about unregulated free markets (while my sister was very, very Marxist, go figure). But I’ve migrated from the radical end to feeling that regulated free-markets, with government safety nets to assist those who fall through the cracks in the market work well. I might go a little further left of that, if convinced, but I cannot see any other economic policy in existence that provides the poor with as many opportunities.

    One thing that always caught me was this. Suppose we all stopped eating fast food and donated that money to charity. Well, that would nice at first, except it would put some 10 million people out of jobs, needing more charity. So suppose we cut out other luxuries in our lives and donated that money to charity. That’s more money given to the needy, but more people out of jobs, too. Keep following this line of thought, and suddenly we have huge unemployment and nowhere near enough money to help everyone. That’s why I was for a long time a follower of Rand’s “Virtue of Selfishness”.

    But then there’s the catholic concern about God and mammon. That’s what changed my mind. Economic growth is important, because it is far more beneficial for a poor man to have a job than handouts. But we can’t subscribe to Rand’s selfishness, because it is selfishness itself that causes the corruption in the markets. And addressing immediate crises in human lives is more important than keeping economic growth high. Putting the growth of capital over all other considerations is just as evil as socialism. But certainly, there has to be some concern about economic growth. I just haven’t figured out the right balance, yet.

  • Ryan Harkins says:

    Tito,

    I would. And the distribution here doesn’t bother me much because it is down at a community level. What worries me about government redistribution is that it is impersonal and wasteful. The thing is, I have no problem with saying that the rich have an obligation to assist the poor. Ideally, I would like that to remain between the rich and the poor without any government intervention. Of course, thing’s don’t work that way.

  • Tito Edwards says:

    Ryan,

    I was thinking the same thing about distributism. I like the concept, but at the smallest nuclear stage as possible.

    Being raised in a very small town in the middle of the Pacific, I can see this model working well in a neighborhood setting as opposed at the federal or state levels.

  • Eric Brown says:

    Ryan,

    You’re misunderstanding me. I can’t answer you point by point, so let me hit a few points. Since we’re talking about the United States, when I say “government,” I’m not necessarily saying the national government. If something can be taken care of at a more local level, then it must be done there first if it can be just as efficient. Therefore, the city government or individual state governments — in my view — bear the responsibility of providing a “safety net” without going beyond its own means. I’m very much in favor of state and local governments providing assistance first to avoid the creation of unnecessary bureaucracies. Moreover, the farther away from the situation one gets, the less pressing it is and the less efficient one is at managing it. So, I think there is a way one can honor the principle of subsidiarity while seeking other principles of Catholic Social Teaching such as preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.

    I think such a half-way measure allows for much common ground debate instead of the polarizing back and forth, endless system of liberals vs. conservatives. Why? Liberals initiate new programs, seek to fund older ones that are falling apart, and they tend to do it especially while having a majority at the national level. In comes the conservatives, they deregulate, cut taxes, cut programs, etc. It goes back and forth and the tug-of-war effects the economy and many who are on the receiving end of such things.

    In my view, human dignity must trump economic growth. A respect for human dignity usually leads to some sort of solidary and community–which usually doesn’t allow for economic collapse. A lack of respect of human dignity leads to a cold machine of unrestricted free-market capitalism, where what’s good for the businesses is good for everyone (which really means almost everybody) and it’s based on a consequentialist ethic of right and wrong, which as I have said, emphasizes profits and shareholders over public interest and I don’t see how this is at all compatitible with Jesus’ teaching. However, to be fair, there must be a working economy if we’re going to be able to help those in need and therefore, the regulation by the government has to be kept to a minimum and this is why I support doing it, as much as possible, away from the federal level so that regional or state problems are solved within the state and only assisted federally if it is necessary.

    There is no such thing as a perfect economic system. But I believe that a free market that has “common good” oriented regulation that is kept to a minimum, without handicapping the market, I think is most effective. But that’s my view and I’m not absolutizing it anyway. Though, I don’t think I’m fundamentally wrong. For example, in regard to minimum wage laws the reason that the Bishops support it is because there have been cases of people being employed for wages that are not sufficient to live decently in our country, particularly to provide for one’s family. Making $5.15 an hour is ridiculous (the current wage is $6.44, I think). Now, arguably, it might have been better for each state to deliver a different minimum wage law, but nevertheless be required to have one could have been a common ground solution. Surely it’s cheaper to live in some states than others. But the fundamental recognition in law that there has to be some relative wage that is fitting to the economic situation of our country that respects human dignity should be established.

    Now in regard to education, you have some good points. But I’ll just point to Texas. I live in a state that is predominantly governed by conservative policies because everyone votes for Republicans. Every fiscal year when we start cutting the budget, education is usually first in line. So in places like “third ward” in Houston, which is essentially a ghetto of blacks and hispanics — the schools are run down, underfunded, science labs have no equipment, teachers are poorly paid. The cost of college as you mention is rising. All of this, but we’re having an 11 billion dollar surplus this year in Texas.

    In my view, it’s not simply the money that’s required, it’s the priortizing and the budgeting. Clinton ended his presidency with four surpluses and a deficit of 5.63 trillion dollars. (I’m not saying that he deserves all the credit — he doesn’t). When Bush leaves office, that deficit will have about doubled. We’re fighting a war that requires us to borrow $10 billion dollars a month. On a side note, over half a million Americans die from various forms of cancer and we spend about $5.5 billion on cancer research. That’s not even a month in Iraq.

    When political conservatives take office, funding for public education and financial aid for students are first in line to be cut and money is delivered elsewhere. So in my view it’s not entirely about cost (costs do matter) but when it comes down to what matters, what doesn’t, what’s more important, and what isn’t, is when I begin to go liberal. I think a lot of problems could be solved if our priorities in our budgets were different.

    And what I really want to get at here is that I’m talking here mainly in theory–sort of like a framework. The approach liberals take, I generally agree with. Now are their policies and tendency toward nationalizing some matters an immediate consequence? I don’t think so. I’d argue that I’m “liberal” and other self-identified liberals sometimes aren’t. Just to give an example or two. If liberals really cared about the weak and vulnerable, they would oppose abortion. If liberals really cared about personal freedom, then they would support transitory welfare systems with strict limits so that Americans don’t become ultra-dependent on the government for survival. In that way, I can argue that I’m adopting a more faithfully “liberal” position.

    I think it’s fair to say — as usual — we agree, more or less, on principle and not on policies.

  • Ryan Harkins says:

    Eric,

    I feel I need to go paragraph by paragraph here…

    P1) Good to get on the same page. I was thinking you only meant federal government. Now that that’s cleared up, with you 100%.

    P2) Still 100%

    P3) Still 100%. I really think that full respect for human dignity and a thriving economy go hand-in-hand, that the second naturally springs from the first. Yes, human dignity must indeed trump economy when it becomes an either-or situation. I think we only differ on when that happens. Maybe the how, as well. We’ll see.

    P4) I’m only cautious about the minimum wage thing. That might be because in Wyoming, in most cities the cost of living is cheap. (Not in Laramie, where college students drive housing prices up, or in Rawlins, which is struggling to house a massive number of construction workers, or in Jackson a.k.a. “Little California”.) There’s a lot I could say about minimum wage, and it reflects back on immigrant workers that cram together in a small house, only staying there to sleep, essentially, as they struggle to make ends meet. But then, I don’t know if finding roommates to help split the cost is a good idea or not, giving the potential of abuse. And I suppose, reluctantly, that it makes sense to index minimum wage against inflation, but minimum wage is minimum wage for a reason. It is the wage that says “I have no skills, yet”. I’d rather see a bill mandating a certain amount of raise every so often than a bill raising minimum wage. Your thoughts on that?

    P5) To fix education, we have to fix our public schools and the success of our students there. I have no good ideas of how to do that. The cure, I don’t think, is as simple as throwing money at the problem. Do you think Texas might be willing to have recruitment of public school teachers on the level that it recruits football players? Get all the public schools together and have a draft of potential teachers, of which stats regarding each one’s teaching ability are publicly known? I’d definitely be willing to distribute some of that $11 billion surplus to help each school acquire teachers up to some set salary cap.

    It seems to me that fixing college, or making college available to more and more people, does little unless we actually make our public schools quality schools again. But then, I’ve also heard that a lot of failing schools are failing due to cultural reasons, not financial ones. Do you know or have any experience with this?

    P6) Priorities are going to be a place we differ. All I can say about your example, though, is that cancer is something that plagues all mankind, the Iraq war that is primarily an American and Iraqi problem. The problem I have with the Iraq War right now, and ever since the terrorists decided to make Iraq the central front, is that the Iraq War seems to be a low priority thing, even with all that we seem to be dumping into it. It doesn’t feel, to me, that we’re taking the war seriously. If we had really been serious about it, ramped things up to the levels of previous wars, I think we’d be out of Iraq by now. And since we thought we could fight Iraq in our spare time, I don’t think we should have gone in in the first place. I guess maybe I would amend what you have to say, then, is not just priorities, but commitment to them. Enough half-baked ideas or empty promises.

    P7) Makes sense to me.

    P8) I talk in theory a lot, too. My field of research is theory. Mathematics is about as theoretical as you get. So don’t worry if you’re getting too theoretical.

    P9) I think, between us, we could hammer out an acceptable policy. Let’s try to have one drafted up to present to the next president, whoever he is!

  • Eric Brown says:

    Ryan,

    In regard to your first question on minimum wage. Currently, minimum wage laws are done from the federal level. States can raise the wages higher, but cannot be lower than the federal mandated minimum wage. The notion of a “living wage” was introduced by Pope Leo XIII against the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism and communism. The Holy Father affirmed the right to private property while insisting on the state requiring a living wage. In essence, private property requires state protection and a certain dimension of the common good requires state regulation. Thus, minimum wage is a set legal stature by which the state mandates that all workers be given a “living wage,” which is necessary for a person to achieve a humane standard of living–a person should be able to afford quality housing, foods, utilities, transportation, health care, and minimal leisure.

    Some excerpts of Rerum Novarum:

    “If a worker receives a wage sufficiently large to enable him to provide comfortably for himself, his wife and his children, he will, if prudent, gladly strive to practice thrift; and the result will be, as nature itself seems to counsel, that after expenditures are deducted there will remain something over and above through which he can come into the possession of a little wealth. We have seen, in fact, that the whole question under consideration cannot be settled effectually unless it is assumed and established as a principle, that the right of private property must be regarded as sacred. Wherefore, the law ought to favor this right and, so far as it can, see that the largest possible number among the masses of the population prefer to own property.” (#65)

    “Wealthy owners of the means of production and employers must never forget that both divine and human law forbid them to squeeze the poor and wretched for the sake of gain or to profit from the helplessness of others.” (#17)

    “As regards protection of this world’s good, the first task is to save the wretched workers from the brutality of those who make use of human beings as mere instruments for the unrestrained acquisition of wealth.” (#43)

    How the state ensures a “living wage” can have a variety of forms, I imagine. The most common method is through minimum wage laws. Obviously, I support minimum wage laws. Given the unique structure of the American political system, I don’t think minimum wage laws — as I’ve said — have to be legislated on a national level. Since each state has its own economy, since the price of living in Alabama is not the same as the price of living in New York, then it seems to me preferrable that minimum wage laws still be made, but by the state rather than federal government. That way, the minimum wage in New York or California (places where it’s relatively more expensive to live) be higher than the minimum wage in Louisiana or Nebraska where the cost of living is notably lower. Giving differing state economies, it is more reasonable to not have an across the board minimum wage law. That’s my view on that matter.

    In regard to education, I don’t think we disagree much. We spend more money than any other industrialized nation in the world on education and we have a poor quality of education. One thing — we’re also a much larger country than many others and we have a profoundly different system. So in some ways, I think it’s not always good to compare. There is a need of money, as I noted with schools with outdated textbooks, lacking scientific lab equipment, and poorly paid teachers.

    One thing I think is the emphasis on athletics and not on academics, particularly in the south. The other is the shortage of teachers. Teachers aren’t paid well for all the work they do. A lot they do for free (e.g. staying after school to tutor students for hours). One thing is that education needs to be the item on our list that doesn’t face routine budget cuts. Huge surpluses and problems in our education system such as the ones we have, don’t make much moral sense.

    On the matter of proving the quality of education, I agree entirely. I’m in favor of all but abolishing standardized testing. All it does is gear the entirety of one’s education toward remembering facts to pass some test. The emphasis in education should be on writing well, thinking rationally and critcally, and being able to articulate clearly and synthesize ideas coherently. This usually curbs one’s tendency toward relativism because many of these tenets are present in a liberal arts education.

    Education is also suffering because of at home issues. Students in single parent households are likely to do poorer in school than those who have a traditional family setting. Some parents (Asians especially) are more interested in their children’s academic success than other ethnic groups (African Americans and Hispanics especially). This needs to be a factor that influences our approach to education so that this isn’t a cycling, never-ending reality. The people who grow up to vote, to effect the morality of our country and our culture, come through the education system. There will always be some failing at home and if there isn’t a “safety net” of some sort in the education system to limit cultural and moral relavitism through educating people away from that, we’ll continue to have problems. I suspect in retrospect that one of my high school teachers was a Catholic and that he geared me away from such forms of thinking. Surely, an aversion of relativism isn’t contigent on one’s being Catholic, but simply on being rational (so it’s possible to achieve). After all, everyone who approaches the abortion debate with a poor understanding of morality (and the ‘answerless’ question of when life begins) came through the American education system. It’s why I think it is so fundamental.

    In regard to priortizing issues, I was merely pointing out the fact that it seems that our priorties are misplaced. For someone who calls himself a “liberal,” I think most liberal methods in international policies are severely flawed. To give one example, sending millions of dollars to African governments to help people is commendable in intention, but in policy it doesn’t work. To send money through the machinery of a corrupt government is to waste money because it’ll never reach the people. There is a sufficient amount of food in Africa, it just isn’t distributed justly. I’ve been told (so I’m not sure if it’s true) that the government stores food up and keep it from its citizens. So we have to find more creative ways of dealing with these morally-pressing problems besides throwing American money at it. Essentially, I’m bad mouthing putting more financial power on foreign rather than domestic issues. Cancer was just the example I used. And I too agree that much of what we do, we do half-heartedly, which is an essential ingredient to its failure.

  • Ryan Harkins says:

    Eric,

    I’m ambivalent about standardized testing. For the one year I tested the waters in the college of education, I was exposed to a lot of prejudice about how schooling is to be done. Standardized testing is bad. Dividing students up into tracks is bad. Lots of projects that span many subjects are good. Lessons should be tailored so that the brightest and slowest are each engaged and learning. Grades should be based on rubrics, not the 100 point or A, B, C, D, F scales. Some of these points I agree with, others I don’t. One of my presentations was on standardized testing, and because the prevailing attitude was so negative, I tried to put as much positive spin on it as I could, and I couldn’t muster very much. (Even so, everyone thought I was a crazy conservative who was gung-ho on standardized testing.) But the question becomes, how do you ensure that certain benchmarks are met, that students are actually learning what they need to learn?

    The problem, like in all other areas, is the human factor, especially with teachers. Do we trust all teachers when they say that students have learned what they need to learn, or do we have some other measurement to go by? We can probably trust good teachers, but what about bad ones? But then, how can we trust test written and graded by people who are distant from the students have no idea if the results correspond to the student’s actual abilities? So I don’t think standardized tests are good, but I don’t have a more reasonable alternative, either.

    On the cultural issue affecting education, I’m with you 100%. But I’m not sure how to fix that problem. You can’t legislate that there have to be two parents, and you can’t mandate that parents take sufficient interest. I kind of feel that the only hope is to try to stress to our youth the importance of respect for sex, the sanctity of marriage, and the strength of a stable home in order to try to make life for the next generation better. And that becomes increasingly difficult as the nation is rapidly purging itself of respectable role models.

    As for minimum wage, I can agree that letting the states decide where the minimum is a good idea, especially in the respect for local economies. One of the problems I have is that the minimum wage can only go up. That might be all right if minimum wage is indexed against inflation (though I have arguments about that involving an increase in minimum wage only exacerbating inflation), but there are times when the economy slumps, and companies can only offer lower wages or lay people off. Another problem I have is that I have strong feelings against minimum wage being the base “living wage”. I’m not entirely certain why at the moment. Minimum wage is for the base, green, unskilled worker. Someone who has held a job for a year should not be making minimum wage. He should have seen some raises along the way, at the least. But that is theory, not practice. But here’s the main concern: when you increase the cost of unskilled labor, business tends to be less inclined to hire unskilled labor, and that hurts the unskilled laborers, makes it more difficult to develop skills and build a resume. So I guess the question is: is it really better to have no job at all than a job at $5.15/hr?

    I have no idea how much cost of living in in some places, but I think two people can live frugally in Laramie on about $1500/mo. That ends up being $750 per person take home. Using my sledgehammer approach to taxes (I assume the government simply takes 20% at this level), this amounts to needing to make a little less than $6.00/hr, assuming 40 hours a week, 4 weeks a month. At $5.15 an hour, this means the need to pick up a part-time job, but it is manageable. I know this doesn’t offer much chance of getting ahead, and any emergency can quickly destroy the budget.

    How do these numbers weigh against where you’re at?

    For the priority issues, I feel I might have stepped a little out of line with parts of what I said, and I apologize. And everything you said in your last comment about priorities is dead on, so I don’t have too much to add there.

  • Eric Brown says:

    I don’t think you stepped out of line on anything. Your apology is well accepted, but it isn’t necessary.

    To be brief, minimum wage laws are complicated and I don’t think we can come to an exhaustive, objective conclusion on what we should do. You pointed out correctly, I think, that a bare minimum wage can allow a person to live decently if they’re conservative and unyieldingly prudent with their spending habits. However, the slightest emergency can lead them to financial ruin. All I have to say is look at the skyrocketing cost of health care and the basic requirement of education today — with students needing supplies for projects, entire classes being mandated to purchase something, etc. The greater the number of people in this situation, the worse off we’ll be. Because we can’t have that many people fall through the cracks and expect our economy to survive. At the same time, we have to promote personal virtue and responsibility and not go into communism. So it’s a fine line.

    I agree entirely on standardized testing. I did change the standard of measuring progress: “The emphasis in education should be on writing well, thinking rationally and critcally, and being able to articulate clearly and synthesize ideas coherently.” I’m not opposed to testing if the entirety of your education is geared toward the goal of a sort of liberal arts — writing, analyzing, critical thinking skills, and being able to synthesize (coherently) information. If the education is good, then any sort of standardized test at the end of the day should be fairly simple. That’s currently not the case. Our education is geared toward passing a test and not toward being a fully developed human with knowledge of history, the arts, and the capacity to articulate and communicate effectively orally or in writing. Therefore, with the failure to do well on standardized tests, standards of education become increasingly lower, more class time is spent on taking practice tests, etc, than on actually developing these deeply needed skills. I think that’s why education is in such a crisis.

    I truly support any American who teaches their children at home because of personal disatisfcation with the current system. I’m glad this conversation is happening here because it deeply concerns me that Christians, especially Catholics, are not at the front of the American education reform movement. Most of whom I know (or rather, I have discussed it with) are just are very cynical and apathetic toward it. Behavior, values, etc. are learned. And if we cynically criticize culture and education, but aren’t the agents of change, our Christian values will receive — at most — lipservice. That’s what has happened in this country. Every sort of moral relativism, every affirmation of birth control, religious relativism, etc. will be conditioned into the next generation–in both education and culture. This is what I think happened in the late 20th century. The education system was taken away and Christians have not been on the forefront in reform and influence. We’ve created private schools, began to home school, but the mainstream public education that influences the majority, we’ve left to its own designs. And we’re paying for it now.

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