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Wednesday, December 04, 2002


The priest at mass today (for the Advent gospel of the messianic banquet in Matthew) took the opportunity to say some silly and incorrect things about American wealth. Such as, America consumes 70% of the world's goods. No, it doesn't – and didn't even in the late 40's after fifteen years of pent-up demand and when we were the only functioning economy left standing. We consume so much more than we need. Fair enough – but the fact that we do is an issue for us and for the health of our souls and bodies, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that others have less than they need. The food we waste belongs to someone else. No, it doesn't. (Okay, it originally belongs to God – but then so does the food we don't waste, so what's your point?) We produce far more than we consume, and export the rest to feed others – or try to, if a starving country doesn't refuse to accept our food donations.

People are not poor because Americans are rich; that's an economically ignorant and theologically unChristian thing to say. (It was, The poor you will always have with you, not have with you as long as some of you won't share properly.) What this argument really wants is for America to continue to produce at current levels, to continue to be the locomotive that pulls the train of the world economy, but take an even smaller share of the proceeds than we already do and give even more away. And we would want to do that why, exactly?

When a man of God says things that are silly and incorrect, this makes them no less foolish and no less wrong. There are many good reasons to argue that we should feed the hungry and give alms to the poor and practice corporal works of mercy – you don't have to lie to make the point. When you do, it harms your stated goals.

Update: Shortly after posting this I came across Lee Harris' excellent The Intellectual Origins Of America-Bashing and discovered the seed that grew the tree that bears such poisoned fruit: Paul Baran's 1957 The Political Economy of Growth, which first proposed the notion that Wealth creates Poverty – as an attempt to rescue Marxism from its all-too-evident internal contradictions.

Harris: What needs to be stressed here is that, prior to Baran, no Marxist had ever suspected that capitalism was the cause of the poverty of the rest of the world. Not only had Marx and Engels failed to notice this momentous fact, but neither had any of their followers. ... Baran's global immiserization thesis, after its initial launch, was taken up by other Marxists, but it was nowhere given a more elaborate intellectual foundation than in Immanuel Wallerstein's monumental study The Modern World-System (Academic Press, 1974), which was essentially a fleshing out in greater historical and statistical detail of Baran's thesis. Hence, for the sake of convenience, I will call the global immiserization thesis the Baran-Wallerstein revision.

Apparently, this meme found its way into Marxist thought, where it kept the intellectual system propped up for a while longer, and from there throughout the academy – from which it leached out into the general water supply. And, evidently, into the seminaries. Fascinating.

So the priest today wasn't directly lying – he was just repeating someone else's misstatements. And the underlying claim isn't economically ignorant (although most people who make it likely are) – just dead wrong.

Is a misrepresentation of reality to make it conform to a preconceived ideology a lie? In my book, yes. Not always a willful or deliberate lie, a lie of commission – although sometimes it reveals willful or invincible ignorance, which is certainly culpable. But not really a lie of omission, either, for what's being omitted is not the truth, but either humility – a humble recognition that perhaps not all truth resides comfortably within – or intellectual integrity. Is truth subject to the facts, or are facts subject to the truth? Both relativists and faith-based absolutists buy into the latter, I suspect.

posted by Kelly | 1:43 PM link