Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Your Money or Your Life? Part 2

For Part 1, please click here

Yesterday, you may have thought I painted the case for lavish charity with too broad a brush. Perhaps I left a little too many blobs of paint on your worldview, or maybe I didn't color mine in well enough.

Well, lest you think I'm just letting off steam or railing against the mindsets of other people, let me remind you that in my essays, I'm often preaching to myself. So if any of my convictions stick in your consciousness, then by all means, work them out for yourself, but don't think I'm not doing the same thing in my own soul.

I'm no better - and probably a lot worse - than anybody reading these essays. And oftentimes, I find myself writing things that I had no idea would appear on my computer screen. Some people would say that's the Holy Spirit directing me to say things that maybe I wouldn't normally say. But at the risk of sounding pious or holier-than-thou, I'll simply admit that just because I write something in an essay doesn't mean I've already mastered it myself.

And don't all of us run the risk of spending so much time talking and debating, that gritty Kingdom work gets left on the back burner? I don't particularly enjoy ministering to people mired in raw poverty. I spent a semester in graduate school studying the fledgling homeless shelter here in Arlington, and have volunteered there some, but while I have friends who selflessly serve at the shelter, I feel conspicuous by my inadequacy.

I think I may have already shared the story of walking through Union Square one chilly, rainy evening, and encountering a homeless man begging for money to buy a meal. Like a good New Yorker, I brushed past him, pretending to ignore him, but I turned the corner and ducked into a pizzeria. After purchasing a thick, steaming slice of Sicilian pizza and a chilled bottle of orange juice, I went back outside to the beggar around the corner. In the pouring rain, I held up the pizza and juice to him, expecting at least a smile, if not outright gratitude. Instead, his face soured up, his fiery gaze glancing at the pizza and then scornfully at me.

"What the ---- is this?" he bellowed.

"You said you wanted money for food, so I thought you were hungry," I explained, realizing I had caught him in his lie. And sure enough, he batted the plate with the pizza disdainfully with a greasy hand, shot off some unimaginative expletives, and stalked off into the rain.

If you've ever been to New York City, you've probably seen plates of half-eaten food left on ledges and benches. People sometimes leave their leftovers for the homeless to eat, so they don't have to paw through garbage cans. It's hardly any more sanitary or appetizing, but that's what I did with the pizza and juice. I left it on a broad granite window ledge, and continued my journey home, vowing to never again pay any heed to street beggars.

We All Owe Someone

Indeed, I have my own preconceived ideas about why certain segments of the population are notoriously poor, and I struggle with the idea that God doesn't give a lot of caveats when He tells us to reallocate funds He's given us to them.

But that's really the core of this issue, isn't it? None of what we have is ours. Even if you've gone to college and graduate school and earn a six-figure income, working 60-hour weeks, the salary you receive isn't yours because you deserve it. Is it? Maybe on a basic economic level, but there's more to it than that, isn't there? God gave you talents and abilities, and He's placed you in a part of the world where you're privileged to leverage those abilities through education and work to create a profession that accomplishes something our society values. But are you entitled to what you earn solely on the basis of your own accomplishments?

Who put you in North America, within easy access to some of the best educational systems and most lucrative employment opportunities in the world? Who gave you the ability to think, process information, and learn? Who provided you a job to put your skills to work? Who created our society and sovereignly allows your profession to be one our society is willing to pay for? Who created our treasury and currency, without which your paycheck would be worthless?

Is Everybody Worth What They Earn?

You can see where I'm going with this, can't you? And maybe you're objecting, protesting that reality is much more complex than that. To which I'd also agree - God has allowed mankind to rig the system so that our Ultimate Benefactor gets easily obscured. Well, "rig the system" may seem a bit harsh to some evangelical capitalists, but that's what's happened, isn't it?

After all, the profession of public school teaching has become so marginalized in our society that far fewer highly-qualified people choose it as a profession, or stay in it after a few years. Our society values teachers so poorly that we pay them a fraction of their merit in terms of training future generations to be innovators and thinkers themselves. Nursing represents another profession - oddly, also staffed mostly by women - which demands exceptional proficiency without the financial reward.

On the other hand, stock brokers on Wall street can earn upwards of one billion dollars a year by gaming risks and betting other people's money. But since so many people stand to also reap a windfall if the risks fall on the right side of the ledger, we all cheer in the face of the utter futility such actions pose as legitimate ways to produce a viable commodity. After all, as we've seen in the past couple of years, electronic money doesn't have nearly as much value as what it's supposed to be able to buy.

Money Love

Not that money itself is the problem. Money is just another thing, like shirts, trees, and diplomas. It can sit in your bank account, or in a drawer at your home. It's neither good nor bad. It can be transferred, accidentally washed in the laundry, tossed into the air at the start of a game, pay for good things, pay for bad things, appreciate, and depreciate.

But we love it so much, don't we? We like the way a lot of it makes us feel. We like the things we can buy with it. We like how it can insulate us from people who don't have as much of it as we do.
And before we know it, the poor have fallen completely off our radar. The only times we think about them are when people like Rush Limbaugh rant about how much of our money those lazy poor ingrates want now.

Many Americans who consider themselves to be self-made people with an admirable net worth tend to forget that many things are relative. Yet there is an economic line in the sand, called the "cost of living" in the United States, which can make life incredibly hard or easy, depending on which side of the line you happen to sit.

Tale From the Village

As I've mentioned before, one of the reasons I like New York City so much involves its many contradictions and exaggerations of life. And Manhattan, in particular, offers a slice of American life that is more true than its cacophony of multiculturalism, sheer vertical audacity, and excess of almost everything might initially suggest.

One of these slices of life has to do with the cost of living. And in New York, factors related to costs of living smack you in the face all the time.

You might recall my essays describing the middle class housing experiments of Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town along Manhattan's 14th Street, between Union Square and the East River. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, as it was called then, built the massive complexes after the Second World War as GI's came home and started families. Many servicemen checked in with their parents in New York's aging neighborhoods and took a quick turn out to Long Island, to the brand new invention called the suburbs, of which Levittown was the first.

Meanwhile, back in New York City, top business leaders saw the need for keeping middle class families in the heart of Manhattan. Teachers, nurses, hardware store owners, chefs, garbagemen, police officers, office clerks, and low-level managers still offered valuable services to the city's business class. However, ever since its founding, New York has not exactly boasted a low cost of living. Keeping enough attractive housing affordable enough in the city presented enough of a challenge on the open market, so to enhance the option of city living over the brand-new suburbs, New York's power brokers got the city to create some inventive incentives for Met Life to construct Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town. Even today, they remain bastions of middle-class housing on an island that has seen its open market real estate prices skyrocket.

So what? Does this have anything to do with poverty and money?

Well, I hope so. I'm trying to draw a picture of how capitalism doesn't necessarily value what it should. I'm not saying capitalism is evil or fatally flawed, but you have to admit that it isn't perfect. Sometimes situations are created through the course of economic dynamics that can't be ignored as simply the price we pay for enjoying capitalism. Sometimes, the rich - in New York's case, the corporate titans who didn't want their police officers and secretaries all forced to commute in from the suburbs - need to make allowances for people who would otherwise be shut out of certain economic realities. Call it limousine liberalism if you want, having some well-heeled New York businessmen take pity on lowly schoolteachers and bus drivers so they can have a corner of the city all to themselves. But it has worked - at least, up until now.

Granted, compared with the rest of the country, the rents residents of Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town pay seem shockingly high, but for Manhattan rates, they're artificially low. You really need to have lived in Manhattan and forked out market rate rents for yourself to see how important this story is to the ethic of accommodating certain income disparities. Suffice it to say that while this experiment does indeed violate the principles of pure capitalism, its long-term benefits have proven valuable: it's ensured a sizable population of middle class consumers for local merchants, kept teachers close to public schools and other public servants close to city facilities, provided city companies with low-level employees who don't have long commutes, and maintained a stable neighborhood which has become an anchor for gentrification in adjoining neighborhoods. Those are all assets which may not have big dollars attached to them, but sometimes, it takes money to make money. And that's how I think the original intent of these complexes has been rewarded.

God's Economy Isn't Capitalism

Of course, I realize this is not a seamless comparison between conservatives grousing about entitlement programs and people who are poor because they are lazy. All the residents of Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town have middle-class income and employment; these have never been public housing complexes in the slum sense of the term. And some developers, drooling over these properties' profit potential, have complained for years that these two complexes mock the very economic underpinnings that have made New York City the finance capital of the world.

Yet for all their dowdy aesthetics, contrived civic value, and limited applicability to other cities, Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town represent an acknowledgement that society can benefit from financial grace. This wasn't an experiment in Utopian, altruistic good-for-goodness sake. It was a long-range endorsement of the value hard-working yet minimal-wage people contribute to a community. It represented an understanding that some people will be paid more than others, but that doesn't mean the lower-paid folks are scum.

Which is where it all comes down to relativity. Many middle-class Americans bristle with disdain at the notion of their taxes supporting welfare cases. But for those of us who believe in Christ, how can we reconcile that animosity with Ezekiel 16:49, "Now this was the sin of your sister, Sodom... they did not help the poor and needy..."

Some people need more help than others, and sometimes costs of living become inequitable. This is where poverty starts, and to the extent that we can help mitigate it, shouldn't we?

I'm not saying that everything liberals have done to address poverty is right, and all of the problems conservatives find in our current welfare state don't really exist. We have a distorted and ineffective entitlement system that needs to be overhauled.

But can we ignore our responsibility to participate in the solution? And not giving anything, even while the systems are broken, is not a Biblical option. Instead of saying entitlements reward laziness, and that taxation to fund entitlements is wealth redistribution, let's get serious about whose money we're talking about here.

God's economy isn't capitalism. Capitalism is a man-made economic contrivance, just like communism, feudalism, neo-colonialism, socialism, and all of the other "ism's" societies have used to structure their financial resources. While I happen to consider capitalism to be the most effective socioeconomic structure ever invented, I hold no false illusions as to its ability to cure everything that ails us. At best, capitalism can provide a robust framework for guiding our economy, but even the best-engineered framework is designed to flex a bit to accommodate adversity.

Now, I'm hardly the prototype of the flexible, accommodating personality. But when it comes to managing God's money and helping those in poverty, I'm trying! How about you?

In Memoriam

Before I close, please allow me to remember this day that "lives in infamy;" December 7, Pearl Harbor Day. The first residents of Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town were people who fought in the war precipitated by that fateful day.
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