“Let’s Try This” 12/17/2017

READING: Edward Winslow’s account of John Robinson’s Farewell Sermon, from “Winslow’s Brief Narration: the true grounds or cause of the first planting of New England”:

…he charged us … if God should reveal any thing to us by any other instrument of his, to be as ready to receive it as ever we were to receive any truth by his ministry; for he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word. He took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the Reformed Churches, who were come to a period in religion, and would go no further than the instruments of their Reformation. As, for example, the Lutherans, they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw; for whatever part of God’s will he had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it. And so also, saith he, you see the Calvinists, they stick where he left them; a misery much to be lamented; for though they were precious shining lights in their times, yet God had not revealed his whole will to them; and were they now living, saith he, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as that they had received. Here also he put us in mind of our church covenant, at least that part of it whereby we promise and covenant with God and one with another, to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us from his written word; but withal exhorted us to take heed what we received for truth, and well to examine and compare it and weigh it with other Scriptures of truth before we received it. For, saith he, it is not possible the Christian world should come so lately out of such thick … darkness, and that full perfection of knowledge should break forth at once.

SERMON: “Let’s Try This”

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading another one of those books I can’t recommend that you read. This one is Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler. Many of you remember me talking about Thomas Piketty’s Capital – a thick book dense with graphs and the technical jargon of Economics, my undergraduate field of study. I talked about that book because I thought it said something important that an informed citizen ought to know: that the notions of economic growth we have known by experience and teaching are not typical of most of human history. The destruction of capital during the two world wars left so much room for growth that we almost couldn’t help exceeding all historical norms. Based on the most thorough and careful collection of historical economic data in the history of his field, Piketty suggests that we ought not to expect a 3% or 4% growth rate, but rather the more historically typical rates of 1% or 2%.

Scheidel picks up where Piketty left off. He constructs a historical narrative of how income and wealth inequality takes shape in the processes of economic development. It is a virtuoso performance, taking in all of human economic development from prehistoric hunting-and-foraging societies through agrarian and finally to industrial societies. In his Introduction, he writes about how this kind of account is possible: “Recent years have witnessed considerable advances in the study of premodern tax records and the reconstruction of real wages, rent[-to-]wage ratios, and even [Gross Domestic Product] levels. It is not an exaggeration to say that much of this book could not have been written twenty or even ten years ago.”

One reason I can’t recommend Scheidel’s book is the technical jargon and the abundance of graphs. Another is his dispiriting thesis, that – historically – the only way income inequality has been undone is through violent upheavals: wars, revolutions, state failure or systems collapse, and severe epidemics. He calls these “the Four Horsemen of apocalyptic leveling.” But he does look hard for precedents for peaceful leveling of income and wealth inequality, and though he finds none, he does suggest that the past does not constrain the future. And he offers some new ways of looking at economic life that strike me as promising lenses for finding that better future.

One of these is his reimagining of what economists call “the factors of production.” Traditionally, we speak of land, labor, and capital. Instead, Scheidel speaks of embodied wealth, relational wealth, and material wealth. This reframing comes from his efforts to understand the economics of hunting-and-foraging societies. Land and capital just aren’t factors in the same way in that setting, since the notion of ownership is not applied as we apply it. So he had to think about what wealth was in that sort of life. And it turns out that we find these categories of wealth in our own society, but reckoned differently, or overlooked as forms of wealth. Embodied wealth is subsumed in our notion of labor; land and capital are forms of material wealth; and relational wealth is just out of focus or fragmented in our economic conceptions, but it’s there if you look for it.

Another thing he does is reintroduce to economic analysis the economic impact of political and military power. That, I think, is why he notices violence and lifts it up so starkly in his account of inequality.

I remember when I was a boy, there was a schoolteacher who lived kitty-corner from my grandmother’s house. She enjoyed visiting with children, so when we went to stay at Grandma’s house I would make a point of going over one afternoon to see her. I must have been in college one of those afternoons – that’s how long this ritual went on, she felt so much like family to me – and I told her I was going to major in Economics. “Economics!” she said, “When I was teaching school we called it ‘The Political Economy.’” You see, there was a change when the field sought to establish itself as a social science. “The Political” dropped out. Or perhaps more accurately, it gradually went more and more unacknowledged.

Scheidel says that power inequality and hierarchy existed to some degree right back into hunter-forager times; and starting with the domestication of plant and animal food sources, as economic technologies advanced, those with social or political power found opportunities to take the surplus from greater production to themselves, in that way generating inequalities in income and wealth. He says that we can “trace the concentration of resources in the hands of the few to two principal factors: economic development and predatory behavior by those powerful enough to appropriate [material] wealth [by commanding premiums].” Later in the book he adds a third factor: connections to the powerful, a form of relational wealth. “[E]ffective leveling,” he says, “required violent shocks that at least temporarily curtailed and reversed the disequalizing consequences of capital investment, commercialization, and the exercise of political, military, and ideological power by predatory elites and their associates.” The resonance of this observation with recent news events is nearly audible.

Scheidel hints that because economic development carries with it the promise of higher standards of living for all, the expectation that that promise will be fulfilled could serve to constrain economic predation. He seems to suggest that if the political culture is less coercive and more collaborative to start with, then people with more power will be more likely to use it for the common good. Specifically, since he is studying income inequality, he thinks about a socially accepted standard of what an individual’s minimum income should be. “Actual income floors are determined not merely by bare physiological subsistence,” he says, “but also by powerful social and economic factors. … Adam Smith’s definition of minimum requirements in his own day is a famous example. In his opinion, they include ‘not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without,’ such as—in England—a linen shirt and leather shoes.”

Today we speak of justice in terms of what it takes for communities to thrive, not just survive. Reproductive justice takes in not simply an individual woman’s sovereignty over her own body, but also the safety of neighborhoods, the quality of schools, the healthiness of the natural and built environment – all the things that it is indecent for a community not to provide its children. We speak of violent policing as indecent – that’s what the Black Lives Matter movement is about, lifting up the indecency of violent policing that targets communities of color. Restorative justice is about the indecency of a purely punitive and impersonal system for handling crime – it represents an indecent interpretation of that motto inscribed on our Criminal Court building, “a nation of laws, not of men.” The sanctuary movement is about lifting up the indecency of breaking up families or depriving them of means to live and basic rights in the name of border security. The “dreamers” movement is about the indecency of threatening to deport young people who have known no other homeland. We have differing opinions in society around what to do about all of these things, but they are all examples of things beyond bare physiological subsistence that we probably could find a consensus about what – as Smith put it – “creditable people, even of the lowest order” should have. If we could articulate and collectively accept standards for these kinds of things, then in a properly collaborative democratic culture, those with more wealth and power would find themselves constrained to help realize those standards, assuming that a sense of decency can reach them.

We do collectively accept destructive norms and systems. The Christmas season includes one of the worst: “Black Friday.” You do know, right, that once upon a time the term “Black Friday” was used to name the 1929 stock market crash that signaled the Great Depression? But now it means the Friday after Thanksgiving, which is “black” because retail businesses hope to make their break-even point for the year on that day. It’s “black” in the sense that accountants use: red ink records a deficit, black ink records a surplus. And I have to say again this year: if you can’t break even for the year without imposing your financial anxiety on the whole nation by offering wild discounts, then you’re doing it wrong. There’s something indecent about your business model, if that’s how you think you have to do it.

We do collectively accept destructive norms and systems. And as long as our political, social, and economic systems behave more coercively than collaboratively, we tend to stick with those destructive norms. But when we try something different and experience a better way, a more decent way, then we have a chance to train ourselves in constructive habits and shape new, healthier, more sustainable and life-giving norms. This is what the symbol and practice of covenanting stands for. We state standards for ourselves, and develop those standards by practicing them and reflecting together on our practice. Active covenanting puts trust and accountability at the center of our concerns. We get to the outcomes we want by preserving our trust in and accountability to one another. We get the outcomes we want by being and behaving like the community we want to be. By being and behaving like the community we want to be, more light and truth breaks forth.

This is why trust and accountability can serve as effective constraints on power – they are relational, not benchmark, norms. Trust and accountability are norms of covenanting that are simply absent from most legal contracts, which are written full of benchmark constraints in order to eliminate the need for trust. Similarly, trust and accountability are norms of equity in community that are subordinated in the power hierarchies of incorporation. That subordination is how the norms of a culture trend more toward coercion than collaboration and democracy. So there is something saving for society in our Unitarian Universalist heritage of covenanting.

In the Christmas season we talk and sing a lot about love and peace on earth. Covenanting is a practice of trust, connection, empathy, accountability, and hope that promises a more collaborative society, and the possibility of love and peace on earth all year round. When you get right down to it, it’s the reason for the season.

Happy Holidays –  and instead of the anxiety of break-even, may you know the love and peace of the season in your heart. Amen.


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