Monday, December 30, 2013

The Economy: What's the Big Picture?

Look! Money! Lots and lots of Money!
Now that I have your attention...
2013 hasn't been a banner year for most people's economic confidence.

We're worried about stuff. We're worried about debt, taxes, monetary policy, China, debt, mandates, bad websites, education, debt, downturn, outsourcing, China, debt, unemployment, under-employment, debt, foreclosure, products, China, energy reserves, resources, climate change, pollution, China, poverty, debt, heathcare, trade, China, wages, benefits, stock, retirement, debt, bankruptcy, fiscal collapse, bailouts, treasury bonds, China, politics, debt, debt. debt, DEBT... TRILLIONS AND TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS, and.... (wait, how many zeros does a trillion have again?)

Is "it" all going to come crashing down? Or is "it" just going to crumble slowly? You know, our "way of life"....

The Janaros are struggling, economically. We're pinching pennies and just getting by. We're not rich. We make a lot of sacrifices. We manage, somehow.

Then I put things in historical perspective. It doesn't really make me feel better; I like the life I have; it's the only way of living I have ever known. I'm used to living the way I do, and I consider it normal.

But there is nothing "normal" about it, really.

This is the fact: as 21st century Americans who are (broadly speaking) "middle class" we are -- BY FAR -- among the richest and most comfortable and (in our possibilities for for so many life choices) most "powerful" people who have ever lived in the history of the human race!

Just think about it for a minute.

Look at this house I live in, this house that is "much too small" for our family. Ha ha ha! Emperors in all their glory had nothing like the power that is accessible to me at the flick of a finger. I command the light, the water, and even the air temperature of my dwelling. I am master of my realm. And then I have two blazing chariots ("used clunkers," but they still go), that can transport me vast distances in any direction I choose.

If Odysseus and his crew found themselves at my house, all I would have to do is flick on a light switch and they would fall on their faces and worship me as a god! (Granted, I can't turn them into pigs. But I can give them television and nachos and microwave popcorn and beer....)

But never mind the ancients. What nobleman, what lord, what king, what rich smug capitalist from a hundred years ago can say what the average middle class American can still say today, namely, that with a computer, a credit card, and an airline ticketing website, we can travel anywhere we want on this planet within seventy two hours. Decide now, and We can be there in three days. Australia? Non-stop. India? Non-stop. Timbuktu? Okay, that's a bit of a challenge. First we change flights, preferably in Paris. From there we fly to the international airport at Barnako, Mali, which has domestic flights to Timbuktu. Assuming there's no civil war going on, I can book the tickets NOW. The connection in Mali might be a bit unpredictable. But that's why I said "three days."

Are we not, materially speaking, the richest and most powerful people who have ever lived?

My little house has magical gadgets that never occurred to Kubla Khan in his wildest dreams of Xanadu. Here, right now, I am sitting in front of the glittering computer square that can make the space between me and anywhere else in the world evaporate.

Louis XIV? Bah! He would have envied my bathroom.

So what is my point? Many in the world today live without what we commonly consider "necessities." Indeed, our loaded lifestyle has its polar opposite in the hunger and sheer misery of millions of people. Still, our society is capable of opening up these possibilites to anyone. 200 years ago no one lived with anything like the material comfort that we possess. We are uniquely endowed with wealth, and with a "living network" that puts colossal possibilities within our reach.

But with all our material strength, we Americans have difficulties. Some of our difficulties are fundamental, and it cannot be denied that the vast power we possess has also created new problems that our ancestors never had to bear. Life remains hard, because the human person is so much more than material wealth and power. It can be overwhelming. People become dizzy with so many choices and experiences that can be multiplied without ever bringing satisfaction.

My son astutely observed that "today, life is easier physically but harder mentally." We can cure so many diseases today, and yet our "way of life" has made us vulnerable to new diseases that we hardly understand: diseases that kill us or drain us or rob us of our minds. Everyone is under stress to be productive in a way that can be quantified -- a way that expresses and extends our material power. The inner development of the human person is not seen as an end worth pursuing for its own sake, but at best as a means to make human beings more coherent and imaginative, and therefore more productive of new ways to dominate the material world. Everything is an "industry." I work in the "Education Industry," which surprised me when I first found out. I thought I was a teacher.

These are great difficulties. But they do not cancel out the fact that material progress has brought many blessings to daily life. In principle, it has the capacity to free us for a deeper cultivation of understanding and freedom, and to be able to perceive all of our work as service, as an expression of self-giving, and as a participation in the interpersonal relationships that give rise to a real human community.

When I think of my relationship with God, my opportunities to educate my children and to share life with others in community, it is clear that these are the true riches. I want my living environment to help support these riches (and it can, in many ways). But if it hinders or distracts me from living like a human being, then it has really become a form of poverty.

I know for sure that, to be human, I do not need as much material power and possessions as I can possibly acquire. What I need is "enough," which means enough material wealth to be able to fulfill my vocation and to assist those who are deprived of what they need.

Indeed, humans are blessed with material wealth (just as we are blessed with personal talents) in order to give to one another, to help sustain one another as human beings, to be bonded together in the sharing of concrete human life.

In this manner, we store up a treasure that will endure in the face of any economic crisis, a treasure that moth cannot eat and thief cannot steal, a treasure that survives the rise and fall of nations, a treasure that does not depend on our power because it is perfected in weakness.