May 10, 2005

On work (and slack)

Monsignor Swetlund spoke today at Knox on the topic of work and social justice from a (Catholic) theological perspective. It was an interesting take on the issues, and I hope to work these ideas more into my own rhetoric. It really is a shame that liberals have as a group become so disdainful of religion---there is quite the natural alliance there.

He started off with an analysis of Genesis. Although people frequently say that work is part of the curse of the Fall, he pointed out that Man was created to work; it's just that work became toilsome after the Fall. Right from the start, though, God sets Adam to naming the animals, and grants dominion over them. This stewardship is not something to be taken lightly, and definitely counts as work. When Genesis says that man was created "in His image", the word that is used (S-L-M) is the same as for the statues of themselves that kings of the ancient era would place in their provincial capitals to remind people who was boss; the king's viceroys would be appointed to rule in his name, always reminded of the authority of the king. We are God's viceroys; over our own little slice of God's creation we hold dominion, and we are called to the responsible stewardship thereof. Part of that responsible stewardship is doing the work we are called to do---Catholics say we must follow our vocation.

And remember the third/fourth Commandment: "Six days you shall work." (There's also something about resting on the seventh in there.)

It's an interesting contrast to a creed held dear by a number of other people I know (not Christians): that the highest calling of Man is to slack. I'm pretty sure the idea was originally proposed in jest, but Church of the Subgenius and related traditions thought about it and realised that it's not so silly as it may at first sound. We work to pay the bills, but why let work steal our soul? Our humanity is found in the times when we are at leisure.

However, I'm not sure the two ideas are so much in opposition. I've heard a fair amount about slack from a friend of mine (he goes by "Reverend Jack" when he's ministering), and it strikes me that the chief characteristic of work that makes it not slack is the fact that the worker doesn't want to be doing it. If it's something you'd do anyway, then it doesn't seem to particularly count as "work" on the work-slack continuum. It can, however, count as work on the work-sloth continuum. So it really does strike me that the two systems are moderately compatible; meaning that the pinnacle of metaphysical place-finding would be to land a job that lets you do slackful work (or, alternatively, to have buckets of money and do slackful work, but that's harder to arrange). Which is just another way of saying "find a job doing what you love", which isn't very novel or surprising to anyone, I suppose.

But anyway.

After a fascinating rundown of the Catholic work ethic, the monsignor moved on to address the question of how this fits in to the larger issue of social justice. He framed it in linguistic terms, though I'm not sure he thought of it that way: work is a transitive action; it has both a subject and an object. The objective side of things is what we've already covered, regarding creativity and the (co-)creation of things both tangible and intangible. It's important that most members of a society produce more than they consume; that's what makes a society prosper. (He referred to himself as a notorious exception, since priests don't "produce" much, but I would disagree---it's just that his production is almost entirely in intangibles.)

As soon as you consider the subjective side, though, the social justice issues naturally fall out. Sure, this factory is producing lots of good things, but what about all the employees that are getting injured? Sure, this company improved its bottom line, but what about all the workers without health care? Sure, we're meeting our production quotas, but what about people that are working 50, 60, 70-hour weeks? Any complete discussion of the rights and duties of work must necessarily include these subjective components as well.

The bishops (and I wasn't clear on whether this was an American bishop thing or more widespread, but it's certainly consistent with the larger RCC position) laid out a three-point plan for reviewing any work decision, whether at the company level or at the public policy level:

  1. What will it do to people?
  2. What will it do for people?
  3. How will it affect the least well-off in society?
If you can't come up with a satisfactory answer to all three, you should be rethinking your decision.

The Genesis theology that justified the duty to work also justifies a right to work; Man was made to work, the reasoning goes, and we should make it our business to help enable that. What is it, exactly, that people have against "make-work" programs? The very term is loaded with negative connotations, yet few declaim the many achievements of New Deal programs that had the government paying people to build parks and roads and bridges and monuments. Many of them still exist in reasonably good shape today. While certainly not appropriate for everyone on welfare (and it would be a disaster if this sort of work were required of everyone on welfare), it might make a lot of people more fulfilled if they could actually do work they could take pride in. I mean, it might be hard to feel fulfilled if the fruits of their labour did not contribute to corporate profits, but I'm sure they'd find a way.

Msgr Swetlund closed with two (unfortunately-)controversial points:

  • We have a duty not just to see that all people work, but that they be paid a just, living wage. That means paying them enough money to keep a small family above the poverty line; despite all the corporate barons that cry whenever people demand a raise in the minimum wage, it still is quite a bit less than any reasonable living wage. In Champaign County, in order to support a family of four at just the poverty line, working 40 hours a week, a worker needs to make $9.25 an hour, and that's if health care is included on top of that. It would easily break $10 in a big city like Chicago, and yet the national minimum wage is still just $5.15. (Happily, the state has raised our minimum wage to $6.50---that's progress, but it's still not enough.)

    And of course the barons cry: right now, all the growth and prosperity goes straight into their pockets. In 1980, the average CEO made 42 times what an average worker made. Now they make more than 500 times what the average worker makes.** Think about that every time they say companies can't afford to pay their workers....

  • Americans work way too much. Even when you exclude the French with their famously short weeks and long vacations, we work a lot more than other first world nations. In 1973, we worked about 40.6 hours a week on average. Now it's more than 50.*** On average. And while in 1977, dual-income couples worked a collective 70 hours a week, they now work 82; and if they have kids, the numbers go up rather than down: the average dual-income couple with children now works 91 hours a week. We've gotta fix that.

"Leisure," said Msgr Swetlund, "is the basis of culture. Not work." Sounds like slack to me.

Thing I need to investigate further: There is a economic philosophy called "Economy of communion" that has apparently been used to great effect in some third world countries. The idea is, you convert a held company to a co-op, and profits get split in thirds, with one third each going back to the company (as capital improvement), to the workers, and to the community. Because this is a philosophy and not a legal definition, co-op leaders are able to use judgement and discretion, as when a Brazilian co-op used part of the "workers" money to hire an on-site doctor, vastly improving the local health care situation, or when the same co-op took one day a week for its workers to build houses, Habitat-for-Humanity-style, to replace the shantytowns that people were living in until then. Healthy, happy workers are vastly more productive, so this sort of model really is viable.

Other thing I need to investigate: evidently, Pope John Paul II wrote a number of plays in his younger days. One, titled "My God's Brother", is a rather subversive (for postwar Poland) dialogue between a Marxist, who wanted to help the poor by overthrowing the government, and a Christian, who wanted to help the poor by, y'know, helping the poor. The icing on the cake is that the Marxist turns out to be Satan in disguise. This is about how I feel about the anti-choice activists that spend all their time, talent, and treasure on making it illegal, as opposed to those few* that actually work at providing good, free prenatal care and other support services for the unexpectedly pregnant.

* By "few" here, I'm referring to those who are anti-choice and work to support the unexpectedly pregnant. I know lots of people who provide material support towards prenatal services, but strangely enough, most of them don't want abortion to be illegal. By their fruits ye shall know them, eh? In many parts of the country, Planned Parenthood is still the only place women can go for cheap or free prenatal care.

** Said he; I'm getting between 300 and 419, 300, and 458, depending on who you check and exactly when they were calculating, but the point stands regardless, eh?

*** Not sure where he got these numbers, and don't have time to chase them down. So, grain of salt and all that.

"It strikes me that Bauer's guess was pretty lucky--I have two axes in my garage but have yet to inscribe either with the word "axe." But hey, when the high priest tells me, "Inscribe the word 'axe' on this axe, chop-chop," I'm not about to wait around for him to axe me politely." --bibliophage

Posted by blahedo at 11:57pm on 10 May 2005
Well, the new morality that I see is that those who can't afford to send their children to college should never get married or have sex to begin with. Helping them is simply assisting them to avoid facing the consequences of their sin. Abortion is bad, not because it ends a life, but because it might allow those who deserve to suffer to escape some of that suffering.

Workfare programs are bad because they might compete with business. Apparently markets are the purest tool that God has to convey his will. Any interference with corporations or the market is wrong. If market forces grant CEOs a salary 100 to 1000 times what the least paid employee, it is because God wills it so. If the least paid employee earns not enough to afford health care or even a decent place to live and good food to eat, God wills it.

Workfare programs are also bad because they rely on taxes and transfer money from those who have it to those who don't. Taxes that benefit any person in greater proportion than their earnings are bad and a defiance of God's will.

Posted by lee at 7:24am on 11 May 2005

Ack! Two errors in a single clause:

co-op leaders are able to use judgement and discretion, as when a Brazilian co-op used part of the "workers" money to hire an on-site doctor

That'd be judgment and "workers'" if you please.

(And I wouldn't even bother if I didn't know how this would bother you if you caught it in someone else's work.)

Posted by Greg at 6:33am on 12 May 2005
That is just his Agoran showing. Posted by lee at 7:18am on 12 May 2005
In fact, "judgement" is a valid spelling of the word. As Lee points out, that's partially my inner Agoran showing (it's definitely the standard spelling on Agora Nomic), but mostly I just prefer how it looks.

As for "workers", it was not meant as a possessive but as an identifier. Having said "back to the company..., to the workers, and to the community", I would have referred to these segments of the money as the "company" money, the "workers" money, and the "community" money, respectively. I suppose I could have used company's money, workers' money, and community's money, but the connection is more that the money is designated for each group, not that it's actually owned by them yet. (Of course, strictly speaking, that is within the scope of the genitive relationship, which is much broader than just possessives.)

So, although your version would not be incorrect, mine is correct and what was intended.

Posted by blahedo at 8:12am on 12 May 2005
This seems to be a perfect topic with World Fair Trade Day coming up- we should value the worker as well as the work. Unfortunately, while we may have some impact in our own country, it's hard to make a difference in nations that are not fully democratic and not fully capitalistic. In a small way, I suppose we could stop buying cheap Chinese slave produced garbage at Wally World. In our country, I agree we should embrace the concept of living wage, while at the same time lowering taxes on employers enough so they can afford to pay the living wage. And if workers weren't taxed so heavily either, the living wage would not need to be as high as some propose. Now, to touch on abortion, neither the pro-life nor the pro-choice political movements have any credibility, IMO. Most pro-lifers seem only concerned about some types of "life," and most pro-choicers support only some "choices." For example, many pro-lifers I know of don't seem very concerned about the death penalty or issues of hunger, etc. And most pro-choicers oppose men who would like to choose to opt-out of parenting, while deceitfully throwing out terms like "Deadbeat Dad" when it's a known fact anyway that non-custodial mothers are more likely to avoid financial support for their children than non-custodial fathers. Posted by Danger at 9:03pm on 12 May 2005
"Deadbeat Dad" is used because the vast majority of non-custodial parents and the vast majority of non-support paying non-custodial parents are men. It is not inconsistent to be pro-choice and yet be opposed to allowing fathers to skip out on parental obligations if they wish. We do not, in this society, compel one person to have their bodily integrity or bodily automony violated in order to support another, no matter how critical that support is. If I am the only one who has a blood match to help another, and all they need is a drop of my blood to live, I cannot be compelled by law to give them that drop of blood. I can be forced under law to support individuals I would choose not to. Under some state laws, under certain condidtions, I must provide financial support to my parents, and of course that is not the only type of situation where I could be forced to use my money to support another I might not want to. Child support is not about punishing anyone, it is about the best interest of a child. It may not seem fair that women can opt out of parenthood by choosing to abort and a father cannot opt out at all (save by abstaining from sex in the first place), but pregnacy is inherently asymmetric, or as it has been said before: Life is not fair. Posted by lee at 1:08am on 13 May 2005
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