As I ended my last program I was analyzing the rising cost of medical care by explaining how the theory of Capitalism was designed to bring about a fair price through the “law of the Mark”, which involves the two “invisible hands” of “self interest and competition”. Adam Smith referred to them as “invisible hands” because, although they can’t be seen, they automatically cause “self interested” individuals to drive each other towards their “cost of production” through their competition to gain a greater share of the market. And, when it works according to the rules of capitalism, it really does. However, when those rules are suspended or avoided, through monopolies in which there is no competition, or when the consumer doesn’t follow his own “self interest” by seeking the lowest price, there is nothing to assure a fair price.
I have already mentioned how the cosmetic industry makes exorbitant profits because the consumer is actually attracted to higher rather than lower prices. Thus, if they charged a “fair prices” near their own “cost of production”, they would actually lose customers. Also, some rich people, who seek to impress others with their wealth through “conspicuous consumption” want to pay exorbitant prices. So in both of these instances, the “Law of the Market” based on “self-interest and competition” doesn’t work and so we could conclude that they are outside of the capitalistic system. But, as I said at the end of my last program, “this is not a cause for great concern because these are mostly optional purchases that are not necessary and the consumer himself is the agent that causes the price to be higher. However, it is a different story when we are involved in a product for which the consumer has a dire need and is unable to use his ultimate weapon: the decision not to buy. This, I suggest is part of the cause for the rising cost of health care.
There are two reasons why I think that health care is outside of the “law of the market.” First, although the American Medical Association, better known as the AMA. is not classified as a union, it seem to me that it performs the same function. It represents most, if not all, doctors, lobbies in Congress to protect their financial and professional interest, and seems to be able to dictate the prices that doctors charge for their services. How else does it happen that medical costs seem to be uniform across the board? This, in fact, is what all unions do. However, unions generally are not able to eliminate the consumer’s most potent weapon: the decision to refuse to buy if the cost is too high. For example, I recently decided to “buy out” a car that I was leasing instead of buying a new one because the cost was too high. However, it’s a different story when it comes to medical care.
My heart doctor just informed me that my last stress test was unsatisfactory and that I must undergo a “cardiac catherization.” This is not something that I can put off until I can afford it nor is it likely that I will poll other doctors to see if their prices are lower than my doctor’s. Except for “elective surgery” involving a non-essential procedures, most medical problems must be addressed immediately either because they are too serious or will become more serious if left unattended. Also, psychologically most people are not inclined to poll doctors to see who has the cheapest price when they are dealing with a serious problem facing themselves or someone they love. Often they interpret higher price with greater skill. As a result, the “law of the market” is suspended when it comes to health care and, consequently, there is nothing to prevent rising costs.
Another problem is the fact that health care often involves services connected to the skills of the providers and the price that the provider of the service places on him or herself. What is a brain surgeon, nurse, radiologist etc… worth? What is anybody’s skill worth? How much is a teacher, policeman, fireman, reporter, clergyman etc… worth? Capitalism’s answer is it depends on the “law of supply and demand.” When the “supply” is greater than the demand, the price drops. When the demand is greater than the supply, the price increases. And if you are able to control the supply, as a AMA does through the number of applicants admitted to medical school, you can regulate the supply in relation to the demand.
However there is another issue involved when it comes to setting prices for medical care. When you really need somebody’s skill, price becomes a secondary issue. For example, what is a policeman worth when you are being attacked or robbed? What is a fireman worth when you are trapped in a burning building? And that is often the case when we are dealing with health care. What is a doctor worth when he is needed to treat a dying child? Most parents reaction is “Damn the cost. Treat my child!”
Thus, the health care system is particularly problematic because it often deals with issues of life and death and thus the “law of the market” does not work effectively to prevent rising costs. In a sense, for various reason, health care is outside of the market system. Some think that the solution is socialized medicine in which the government pays for everyone’s care. However, we have to remember that the government doesn’t have any money except that which it gets from us through taxation. It really is true that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Somebody always pays, later, if not sooner and it appears that when the government pays costs seem to soar. One thing is certain. We have to rethink how we deal with health care. First, because it is unconscionable that anyone should be denied medical care and second, because it places our own companies at a competitive disadvantage when they have to provide health care coverage for their workers while competing internationally with companies who either don’t cover their own workers or have government programs that do. However, I am very wary of anything that the government runs because the cost always exceeds their estimates and eventually becomes a major drain on the federal budget which is already out of control. What is needed is something that brings down the overall cost of health care.
And that brings us to another issue that Wisdom requires us to consider as in need of repentance and reform. It the issue of when, in terms of salaries and incomes, “enough is enough.” The high cost of anything is directly related to its cost of production, of which, the salaries of the workers involved is a major part. And that is a significant part of the problem not only with the cost of health care but with many other sectors of the economy. American workers, with inflated incomes, are in for a severe shock as they are forced to compete on the international level with lower paid workers in other countries. The party is over.
There was a time in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when our workers had to fight by forming unions to force their employers to pay them fair wages. These unions recognized that the only way to get higher wages and benefits was to deny their services until their demands were met. And, the more essential the service, the greater was the pressure on the employers and the public to agree. It was a very effective tool and it contributed greatly to the high standard of living that we all enjoy as American citizens. However, as often happens, every solution carries its own potential for harm when it is taken too far. As the philosopher Hegel used to say, “Any good idea taken too far becomes a bad idea” and it appears that unions are an example of this.
As a former teacher who has benefited greatly from unions, I know first hand both the benefit and the problem connected to them. When I first started teaching, I was making $4000 a year with an increase of $100 a year. As a point of comparison, my father-in-law, who was an iron-worker, was making $15,000 a year. There was no teacher’s union and so we were at the mercy of the school district that employed us and the taxpayers who paid the bill. Taxpayers do not vote for politicians who raise their taxes and so no matter how unjust our salaries may have been, there was no counter pressure on them to raise the taxes to provide the money to pay us a “fair wage.”
In addition to the problem of wages, there were a lot of indignities heap upon teachers by those above them who sometimes abused their power without any thought of reprisal. I soon learned that people without power in our society, or perhaps all societies, get “walked over” and maltreated. And so it appears that the answer to all power is a counter-power. That is how the natural world operates. The strong dominate the weak. Being a rational person, I wish it wasn’t so but in the nature, the Kingdom of Mental Darkness where rational reflection is missing or in short supply, that’s the way it is. And, unfortunately, although we claim to be rational beings “made in the image and likeness of God”, we often act more like sophisticated animals who cleverly disguise the same mechanisms used by other animals.
Thus, eventually we teachers got tired of being told how noble we were, while we had to work two jobs to make ends meet, and decided that the only way to get the politicians and the taxpayers to move was to dam up the supply to their demands. They wanted their children educated and we refused to make ourselves available until they addressed our need to be paid fairly. That is the way that capitalism, which is based on the same natural laws we find in nature, was designed to worked.
However, power, carries it own dangers because it is something that all human beings have trouble handling. And so unions, once they gain power, are equally prone to abusing it. Once a union is organized with well paid leaders and representatives, they have a vested interest in always seeking more for those they represent in order to justify their existence. And, like defense attorneys who fight to prove the innocence of clients they know to be guilty, they often defended the indefensible by protecting those who fail to do their job. I have seen teachers defended to whom I would not have wanted my own children exposed. But, like it or not, I saw our union as a necessary evil in a world dominated by power blocks who only understood and responded to a counter force and, as a Social Studies teacher, I was well aware of the role that unions played in our history in winning better working conditions and fairer wages for the working class.
When one reads of the working conditions in the early 1900’s in books like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” that describes the conditions of the workers in the meat packing industry of Chicago, it was clear that unless the workers united in a union their plight would never change. Justice cried out for some remedy that would grant these workers safer working conditions and enough money to provide for their families. And as time passed, through the power of unions, the American worker came to be one of the highest paid worker in the world. Eventually this was touted as “The American Dream” where everybody had a chance to become wealthy.
However, as wages and benefits started to increase with each passing contract, Eventually, one started to wonder when “enough was enough” since every raise in income by the workers has to be passed on to someone who was either a taxpayers or a consumer who then has to seek more money to keep up with the rising cost of living. It’s was vicious cycle in which every temporary gain was eventually wiped out by the rising cost of living and had to be renegotiated either to gain more or to just remain even. And while some advanced, others, who lacked the power to renegotiate their income, fell behind.
No longer was the aim to get a “just wage” because the increases had little or nothing to do with the needs of the workers. Raises, or increased benefits, were assumed to be automatic each time there was a new contract and they were given across the board based on the job performed rather than on the need of the recipient. Thus, in order to give the man with many children just enough money to feed his family, the single person with no children received the same amount far in excess of his needs. And the extra cost was passed on to the consumer or taxpayer. My father-in-law, as a iron-worker, received more money each time his union negotiated a contract which, as far as I could see, simply provided him and many of his iron-workers friends with more money to drink away at the neighborhood bar.
We have come a long way from the conditions described in “The Jungle” and it appears that the working class contains the same flawed human nature as the greedy employers of the late 19th and early 20th century who had little concern for the impact that their greed had on others. I saw this first hand as one of my relatives, who was a self-employed carpenter with seven children, struggled to pay the rising real estate taxes on his suburban home. The teachers in his area were among the highest paid in the state. He was very upset by the fact that every time the teacher negotiated a new contract, his real estate taxes went up. What really annoyed him was that their income for nine months was much higher than his for twelve month, with benefits that he had to pay for himself and yet they still weren’t satisfied. Each contract had new demands and it seemed as though they would never be satisfied.
Even though I was a teacher in another school district where the real estate taxes were much lower, I could identify with his anger and frustration. But the problem that bothered him was not limited to just teachers and real estate taxes. It is the prevalent mind-set of American workers and it impacts them and others in many unforeseen ways. The real issue is how does one determine a “fair wage” for the various jobs and professions in a complex society like ours.
I once asked my students to list the income that various jobs, such as for teachers, bank tellers, trash collectors, athletes, doctors, lawyers, policemen, firemen etc.. should receive. When they had finished I asked them to tell me the criteria they had used to determine the different salary levels. We soon realized that there were as many criterion as there were jobs. The policeman and firemen job involved danger, the teacher’s involved education and training children for the future, the bank teller was responsible for large sums of money, the trash collector protected public health, the athlete was involved in mass entertainment, the lawyer protected legal rights, and the policemen and firemen risked their lives protecting us from dangers. When I asked them to explain why certain jobs demanded more money than other jobs, we soon found ourselves in a quagmire of logical inconsistencies as were tried to compare “apples to oranges.” How does one rate the value of education against the danger factor involved in being a police or firemen? How does one rate the value of a brain surgeon, who most of us will never need, against the salary of a trashman who, if he failed to do his job for just a short time, would create a health crisis of major proportions? Our final conclusion was that the salaries that we assigned to different jobs and professions was based on what we thought they made rather than on any objective criterion.
It’s a dilemma to explain why a brain surgeon with one or two children is entitled to ten, twenty, or more times the share of the public wealth as the trash collector with ten children. For example, years ago I read of a man who cleaned and patrolled the sewers of Philadelphia where he was exposed to human waste, dangerous gases, and rats and flying roaches. The odor of his environment permeated his skin and clothes. It was a disgusting but essential job, which, if it was not done, would seriously affect all of us. His salary was $22,000 a year, which was far below the salary of many others doing less essential jobs.
During the Middle Ages, the Church spoke of there being a moral obligation to charge a fair price and to pay a fair wage. It based the fair price on the producers “cost of production” and the “fair wage” on the need of the worker. Karl Marx borrowed this latter idea when he called for a worker’s paradise in which everyone would work according to their ability and receive according to their need. His concept was very close to the Church idea of society being a community that could be likened to a body in which there were many parts performing different functions that were all important for the survival of the whole. And, just as the body distributes energy according to the need of the various parts, so “need” was the common factor in distributing the resources of society. Thus, as St. Paul said in one of his epistle, the foot should not be envious of the eye or the eye of the hand because they all belonged to the same body. Today, we have lost that sense of community and have adopted an “every man for himself” attitude.
But as Christians we are called to “born again” from the natural to the supernatural level and it is the ultimate aim of these talks to have us rethink some of the basic premises of modern society in the light of the Christian gospels. The Church is neither Capitalistic nor Communistic but, rather, it contains elements of both. It values the emphasis on individual freedom, personal responsibility, and choice and the right to private property found in Capitalism, while rejecting the blind greed that some ascribe to it. It values the emphasis on social order, and civic responsibility, and the need to share with others found in Communism while rejecting the concept of an atheistic super-welfare state found in Marx’s Communism.
What it seeks and calls upon us to create is a blending of what is best in both systems while rejecting what is worse. Therefore, as, during our lifetimes, we have seen both systems crumble because of their inherent defects, it is time for us to seize the opportunity to move history a few steps closer to the Kingdom of God on earth by reevaluating our current economic premises in the light of the Christian gospels. What we seek is a synthesis that combines the benefits of the creativity that the freedom and competition that Capitalism brings on the Macro Level with the security and sense of belonging that true communism, as practiced by the religious orders of the Church, brings on the Micro Level. Then we will discover the Truth of Jesus’ statement, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all the rest will be added unto you.” In other words, we will “have our cake and get to eat it too.” We wont have to give up the wonders and benefits of modern technology and start to live as the Amish. Instead, we will learn to use things as God intended them to be used. That is, as instruments for increasing love and wisdom among ourselves.
I have mentioned in past talks that Capitalism is an amoral system that operates according to the natural laws of Natural Selection and Survival of the Fittest. The only morality in the system must come from those who produce the goods and service and/or those who purchase them. And that is the key for Christian living in a Capitalistic system and also the greatest opportunity to bring Christ to the world. It is Capitalism emphasis on “freedom of choice” and power of those choice to move reality that affords Christians the greatest opportunity for impacting the world with Christian values. But let us choose as people with a vision who fully understand the impact of their choices. There is no inherent conflict between Capitalism and Christianity and there never was. Even in the early days of Capitalism there were Christian men who found a way to serve a competitive, profit making system and still serve God by adding a Christian dimension to their efforts.
Hershey, Pennsylvania is a prime example. Mr. Hershey amassed a fortune selling chocolate. But instead of throwing lavish parties, or living an extravagant life style, he plowed his money back into the town of Hershey for the benefits of his workers. He built housing, schools, hospitals, orphanages, and even an amusement park for their benefit. In Philadelphia, John Stetson, of Stetson Hat fame, also built housing and a hospital for his workers. And even Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who were known for their cutthroat business practices realized that great wealth brought with it an obligation to give back to the community. Carnegie even wrote a piece called “The Gospel of Wealth” in which he spoke of the moral obligation that came with great wealth. The Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations continue to this day to finance many social causes, which, unfortunately do not always reflect the Christian beliefs of their founders. However, that another issue that I don’t have time to address. My point is that these men, who were known as Enlightened Capitalist, demonstrated that it wasn’t the “making of money” that was the issue. Rather, it was how you used it after you made it.
A primary example of this today is Warren Buffet. Recently, I received an e-mail containing a Powerpoint program illustrating his views and lifestyle. He is, as many of you probably know, either the richest, or second richest man in the world. Yet, you would never know it by the way that he lives. Here are some excerpts from the Powerpoint program based on a one hour interview on CNBC.
According to the program, so far he has given away 33 billion dollars to charity. And despite his great wealth, he still lives in the three bedroom house, which he says has everything that he needs, that he bought when he got married 50 years ago; He has no wall or fence around his property and has no security guards. He drives his own car; and doesn’t own a cellphone or have a computer on his desk. His advice is don’t buy any more than you really need and teach your children to think and do the same thing. He never flies by private jet although he owns the world’s largest private jet company. He does not socialize with the high society crowd. He prefers, rather, to watch TV while eating popcorn. His advice to young people is to stay away from credit cards, invest in yourself, and remember that money doesn’t create the man, it is the man who creates the money. You are what you are. Don’t buy brand names. Rather buy what you feel comfortable in. Don’t try to show off. Be yourself and enjoy what you like doing. Always try to do things as economically as possible. Don’t waste your money on unnecessary things. rather spend it on people that really need it. Live life as simple as you are and don’t do what others say, just listen to them, but do what you feel is right. It’s your life so don’t give other the chance to rule it.
It sounds as though he really is the richest man in the world but not because of all his money. He is a prime example of someone who lives in the world but is not of it. He marches to the beat of a different drummer and he is a guiding example to the rest of us of how to live a Christian life in a Capitalistic world. We might say that, like St. Thomas More, he represents a Man for All Seasons. It is not the system in which he finds himself that dictates who he is but rather his own inner sense of himself.
I don’t know his religious beliefs or whether he is religious at all but he certainly seems to possess the inner Wisdom that the Christian gospels expect all of us to have. He seems to be grateful for what he has and has no overwhelming need to impress others with his wealth or to adopt a lifestyle beyond what he already had. Yet, he also knows that money was not meant to be hoarded. Rather, like the blood in the body that must circulate for the its health, money has to circulate for the health of the economy. So, he recommends that, instead of sitting on it, give it to someone who really needs it and will keep it circulating by spending it.
I know a man who has adopted the same philosophy. He was fortunate enough to have enough income that was independent of any of the failing sources in today’s economy. However, instead of seeking to preserve what he has, he decided instead to spend more lavishly in order to keep other people working. And, since he doesn’t have enough legitimate needs on which he could spend money, he decided to give more lavishly to those who lacked it so that they could spend it. In a way, it sounds counter-intuitive because it seems that this is the time to be hoarding what you have. However, the truth is that this would be the worse thing to do. Mr. Buffet is right that we should stay away from credit card debt because it is one of the major causes for the mess that we are in. However, those of us who have surplus income should try to keep it circulating either through our own legitimate purchases or by putting it into the hands of those who really need it. It’s just as the Bible says, “It is in giving that we will receive” because the only way out of our economic slump is to keep people working.
But it doesn’t end there because we will be right back into this mess or even worse if we start to do the same things again. A recent article in Reader’s Digest claims that mistakes are more valuable than successes because brain researchers have discovered that the creative areas of our brains work harder after we have experienced a failure. Obviously, this is because failures are the first indication that we have been doing something wrong and that we need to correct something in order to succeed. In other words, it brings us to repentance and reform. So let’s put our creative minds together and create new responses to old problems and call upon the Holy Spirit of God with the prayer: Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful and kindle in them the fire of Thy Love. Send forth Your spirit and they shall be created and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth. Well, I see that my time is up.
I don’t know about you, but I am convicted by his words because I can see that I have failed in some of the areas that he has identified.