22 June 2012

My Credentials and Views on Education- 9

I think it's a good and healthy to exercise to read those whom you disagree with. I think we need to be challenged. So often in academia the scholars suffer from ivory-tower syndrome. They live in an insulated world and are consumed by inter-factional battles. This happens in many spheres, not just theology. I can think of many economists, media figures and political thinkers who operate within a tiny circle. They've adopted certain key doctrines and cannot think beyond them and in time their arguments become not only mundane but absurd.

I think of this several times a week as I read the Thomas Sowell column in my local paper. He rails against the poor and the subsidies they receive (never mind the welfare for the rich, namely the billions in contracts going to the military-industrial complex) while they (the poor) go out and purchase colour televisions and microwaves. To Sowell, this proves the poor aren't really poor at all.
I'm not sure what decade he thinks he's in, but televisions being available in colour is hardly some kind of cutting edge luxury, and impoverished people purchasing a microwave is hardly a telltale sign that they're really middle class or that they've arrived. And while some are expensive, the cost of a modest television will at most pay for a couple of bills...for one month. That's just one tiny example that often makes me chuckle. But it's indicative of his failure to grasp the lives of people and the issues they wrestle with, or for that matter what poverty means in a First World or Developed society. Poverty is more than microwaves, it's about security, stress, stability and I'll sound like a liberal for a moment...dignity.
No one is suggesting we have poverty on the level of what's found in Tijuana or Rio De Janeiro, but why? Because of the programmes he rails against. If those programmes were eliminated, we would indeed have the shanty towns of the Third World. In fact, there are many employers who rail against things like Medicaid, Housing Subsidies, and Food Stamps, but these programmes allow them to both pay their workers a sub-standard wage...and allow them to walk safely down the street at night. And he would also be surprised to find how many people don't even qualify for these programmes. And now Thomas Sowell is going to begrudge these people colour televisions and a $50 microwave from Wal-mart?
No one is suggesting there aren't lazy people out there, people who make bad decisions...but you know I've known and worked for many wealthy people...some of them are incredibly lazy and self-destructive as well. Not everyone who is wealthy really and truly 'earns' their money. There are many impoverished people who are smart and work very hard but Providence has not put them in the place of wealth, or the marketplace does not value the work they do. There are many people who are employed in high stress, highly skilled jobs that are important to society but only make enough to live simply. There are others who jabber on a mobile phone, move money around and make a fortune while actually doing almost no work. They may have a skill set in terms of knowledge related to financial markets. But I've also known wealthy people with extensive portfolios that will tell you that many brokers don't know anything and aren't worth the obscene commissions they command. You or I could learn as much watching a financial channel. Other than that, they tap a few keys, something the local convenience store clerk could handle. The same can be true with lawyers, doctors, let alone economists and theologians. I'm not maligning all these people or professions. There are some that are incredibly skilled and bright...but I've also met many who are shame to their profession or office, either negligent, small minded, or in some cases on cruise control, doing very little while bringing in a tremendous income.
Ultimately it's complicated. You can find a full spectrum of character and consequences on the economic scale. There's a million factors. But for a salaried and invested academic like Thomas Sowell, the world is a pretty simple place. It's pretty easy when you already know what the answers are. All you have to do is keep coming up with ways to make the data fit your model or even better...ways to discount and dismiss the data entirely.
His ideas are not only wrong and rooted in a flawed epistemology, they're divorced from reality. His doctrinal commitments 'colour' (like those televisions) his understanding of the data and how he interprets it. He's so focused on the rightness and doctrinal purity of his economic system he no longer can see the forest through the trees. In his case, the Individual is the supreme moral compass. Any time individuality is subjected to the collective, a moral transgression has occurred. A pagan ethic, hardly one I would expect Christians to embrace.
Mind you I'm not saying there's some perfect alternative out there to the doctrines of the Hoover Institution, but I can say with great confidence that they hardly have it all figured out. And as far as Sowell himself, many of his statements are not only erroneous, he often strikes me as borderline deranged. I suppose anyone who has spent a career as a propagandist will end up in an inescapable labyrinth of self-affirmation, blind to all but the agenda which has sustained them and will continue to sustain them in retirement.
Maybe I'm just biased too, but my main concern is with regard to whether or not his ideas would be acceptable for a Christian to hold or emulate.  
I would argue very strenuously that they're not. Yet he's widely respected and often named by Christian-Rightists as one of their favourite authors. All too often his works adorn the shelves in Christian homes I visit.
On more than one occasion I've had tears of laughter running down my cheeks while reading his column. It's often beyond absurd (almost a self-parody) and I would argue (and I'm not alone) he often doesn't even know what he's talking about. He's akin to a child waxing eloquent about quantum physics.
But he works for an institute, and like so many who work for foundations, institutes, think-tanks...and yes, even ministries and seminaries, rather than produce something intellectually profitable or scholarly...they function more like hack propagandists whose job is to keep promoting the agenda at all costs.
I don't see how anyone committed to the Kingdom of Truth could be comfortable or have a clear conscience engaged in such work. I hope it's clear that I'm speaking of things far beyond Thomas Sowell or Economics. He's just the example I'm using at the moment. Everything I've said in reference to him could be applied to many revered Christian leaders, professors, cultural commentators and even theologians.
All man-made systems fail and break down, the Bible is explicit in its declaration that this world will burn. To think otherwise is to either embrace error or to be willfully blind. Some systems are better than others but none are above critique or unassailable. Our commitment to Truth will mean we can't really join with fallen man in his Babel-project. We don't necessarily have to fight them at every turn, but we can never sign-on to their project (in whatever form)...and commit ourselves to the cause no matter what. We can never adopt an 'end justifies the means' approach to presenting truth and/or standing for it.
Those that do this not only stand in opposition to the Kingdom of Christ but really cease to be scholars or academics. The applicable term is much more crude...they're hacks.


Cal said...

When I was a Conservative/Liberterian I never read Sowell but I took his word on faith because I had admiration for Rand and Beck. Now when I listen to Beck I get the same sensation, "Is this a parody or is this real?".

Still, it is so tantalizing to think you have all the answers. Different topic specifically but he'd agree generally, but here I really appreciate Ellul (a good sociologist, lawyer and theologian :) ):

"The doubt that constitutes an integral part of faith concerns myself, not God's revelation or His love or the presence of Jesus Christ. It is doubt about the effectiveness, even the legitimacy, of what I do and the forces I obey in my church and in society. Furthermore, faith puts itself to the test. If I discern the stirrings of faith within me, the first rule is not to deceive myself, not to abandon myself to belief indiscriminately. I have to subject my beliefs to rigorous criticism. I have to listen to all denials and attacks on them, so that I can know how solid the object of my faith is. Faith will not stand for half-truths and half-certainties."

Jim C. said...


In light of your opening paragraph and what you've discusses regarding economics in the remainder of your post I thought you'd find this amusing.

Assuming he has Marx, Engels and to a lesser extent Lenin in mind when he uses the word "communist", I wonder if he's ever even read anything they wrote.

On a related note, I can tell that you have. I know in the past you've criticized right-wing economic assumptions but I can't recall you addressing left-wing assumptions. In light of what you've said about all systems ultimately failing in light of Christian eschatology, I'm curious as to what your criticisms of the left are.


Protoprotestant said...

Oh there are huge problems with left wing economic assumptions...but for the most part apart from Jim Wallis there's really no one pushing them in the Church.

There are problems with the Marxist idea of the workers not being compensated fairly for the labour. Marxism doesn't appreciate the concept of 'risk'...that even though the Capitalist might not being doing the work, his risk entitles him to reap a profit at a rate higher than the mere worker.

Not all the Free Market arguments concerning the poor being lazy, and that subsidies suppress ambition...they're not all wrong.

A solely or hyper-Collectivist mindset has just as many pitfalls and points of naievete. There are times I find the regulation to be crushing and certainly a disincentive when it comes to expanding my business.

But it's not all about me....a lesson I've had to learn...and one the Church doesn't want to learn.

I think both Individualist and Collective systems fail.

So what's the alternative? Well there isn't one. The world is fallen. So... on a society level, I would embrace pragmatism and context.

I realize that's totally unacceptable to Christian 'worldview' thinkers. I just think the 'worldview' we should embrace is that these are all Babylonian systems bound to fail. We need to understand the world we live in and we need understand what the Bible says with regard to how we are to interact with it (our attitudes about money and stuff for example)....my beef is with those who are going to say this system or that one are the 'Christian' models. Wallis is just as bad as Colson or whoever in that regard.

I do find some of the Social Democracy movements to be interesting. They deal with some of the questions without the Marxist narrative, without the class warfare and without the dictatorship of the the proletariat as being the goal.

I've got a series coming down the road in which I want to talk more about some of the pragmatics of our economic situation as Christians. I think that a purely Capitalist system will work and be preferrable in some contexts and can prove disastrous in others. Since I don't think the Bible teaches any one system as a model... I think we can be fairly flexible in terms of application to specific situations.

Protoprotestant said...

Of course there's also the whole tangle of what is left and right. Is Global Free Trade a left leaning idea? Protectionists like Buchanan would probably say so. Rothbard or someone like that wouldn't and would be hostile to protectionism. Buchanan as a Rightist thinks Walmart is terrible....Lew Rockwell praises it as a wonderful and brilliant business model.

I'm afraid I'm probably just as guilty with regard to falling into all the label traps. Right Left...what do they mean. I guess they're just kind of a place to start.

I think one of the problems with the United States is that it's too big. The attempt to keep things from being solely Federal just continues to make for a confusing mess with regard to economic policy, regulation, health care etc... In many our tension between localized representation at the state level vs. federal management is hurting the country's ability to function and solve problems. But no one wants to see everything run out of Washington...me included.

The country is too much of a colossus. Sorry rabbit trailing here...but I do think the size and scope of the society and the way the law works in it plays a big part in the success or failure of many economic models. Unrestricted Free Market Capitalism works just fine in a small town or rural area like I live in. There's more of a community, sense of place, unwritten laws, unwritten custom that people are more likely to follow. We don't need zoning here because no one wants to build a factory or ten story building along the Allegheny River.

But if you're in the city...it's a different ballgame....that means laws and regulations...it means planning to prevent chaos...not just economic but social chaos. Economists are looking at numbers...government officials have more to consider. The economist can look at a large homeless population and shrug...a police chief, mayor, or president cannot.

Gotta run....