Opinion: 'Tis the Season to Be Stingy

December 2013

Politicians and pundits of a certain stripe are fond of calling the United States a Christian nation. Now that we’ve arrived in the so-called season of giving, it’s time for our annual cultural ritual of looking back, taking stock in ourselves and our world, and begin making plans for how we can do better in 2014. But lately, it seems “doing better” in America is measured solely by tangible things such as assets and stock portfolios rather than by intangibles that have no effect on one’s bottom line.

Exhibit A for this perception was the right-wing freakout that accompanied Pope Francis’s recent excoriation of capitalism. As some analysts noted, plenty of popes have criticized capitalism in the past, but this time it drew such instant ire that it’s fair to ask: Upon which altar do these reactionaries—many of who use this time of year to anguish over the alleged “War on Christmas”—actually worship?

[Aside #1, tangentially related: Bill O’Reilly remains clueless about anything he finds even a little threatening.]

If capitalism itself seems on trial, maybe it’s due to our nation’s increasingly unsustainable distribution of wealth and the concurrent demise of the (again, so-called) American Dream. Among the posts making the rounds lately is this video showing the preposterous imbalance between rich and poor in our country; this speech by David Simon, whose TV series The Wire was all about an American underclass that hasn’t been merely forgotten, but aggressively discarded; and this item about how the recession has doomed the arts.

Some people don’t care about any of this. To them, it’s all a bunch of noise emanating from whiny underachievers who lack “what it takes” to make it in our highly competitive world. These are usually the same folks whose solution to everything—roads, education, food inspection—is to privatize it all. (Your frozen chicken nuggets poisoned some kids because the company cut corners on quality control? There won’t be any legal penalties for that, but be assured: Your stock price will pay. Eventually.)

These folks see things like universal health care and safety nets such as social security and Medicare as dangerously close to socialism, or even—GASP!—communism, slurs that still carry inexplicable political weight given that the Cold War ended, decisively, two decades ago.

Please don’t mistake this for an argument in favor of those defeated utopian philosophies. Socialism and communism are no more viable a governing system than is free market capitalism, and ironically, it’s for the same reason: human nature.

[Aside #2: Here’s how well the Randian version of free market economics work in the real world.]

These “purist” solutions residing on opposite ends of the political spectrum will never work on a grand scale simply because a few bad apples at the top (sometimes more than a few) will always try to game the system. Whether it’s Enron or Stalin, those in power often cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of society as a whole.

This is why it's time to accept a certain amount of regulations and pony up a certain amount of taxes for things like roads and education and food inspection. It's time to pay working class people a living wage, and it's time for CEOs to be compensated like merely successful people (if they've truly earned it), not like infallible gods. Agreements on such things seem nearly impossible to achieve of late, but they’re more crucial to our society's survival than they’ve ever been. So as we celebrate this joyous season of hope and charity, the most Christian thing we can do is think less about you and me, and more about us. 

—Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow 5280 articles editor Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.