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The Poverty Thing Print E-mail
By David Warren   
Saturday, 23 March 2013

Do you have eel skin walls? Are your windows bulletproof? Do you drive a Maybach? Forgive me if these sound like intrusive questions from a marketing survey. They are not meant to be personal. I am guessing that the majority of my readers will answer “no” to each question. We’ll skip the next thirty; just two more and then we're done.

Do you own a “flat” that cost more than $10 million? And if so, does it have a car elevator? You know: the kind that lifts you, in your car, from the garage level directly into your apartment?

No?

Very well then. You’re not really rich.

At least, not if you acquire your standards from Vanity Fair magazine. Ive been alluding to an article about One Hyde Park, in London: an apartment complex for the super-rich, just tall and glassy and sprawling enough to overwhelm an (already affluent) old Victorian neighborhood in Knightsbridge.

Now, I mentioned $10 million, but that would be one of the cheaper apartments. Richard Rogers, the celebrity architect, designed the complex, and his clients required every conceivable luxury.

This includes security. There is no way, short of heavy artillery, that any unwanted outsider gets in. But from an assassin’s point of view, why bother? No one ever seems to be home. The apartments are owned through myriad offshore corporate fronts, and the tenants are hardly ever in London. These are just crash pads. Their homes are much nicer.

In the old days the plutocrats made their money through finance, oil, real estate, media, transport and industry. These days they make it chiefly from corrupt privatization schemes in countries like Russia; by acquiring mineral rights in the Third World; by becoming rentiers on a very big scale. Wealth, today, comes by political connections. Given taxes, regulations, labor laws, there’s no other way to make it to the top. “How do you make $50 million in France today? How?,” one commodity lord whines.

The world’s richest, it appears, contribute approximately zero to the world economy. They are almost pure parasites. On the other hand, as the security arrangements imply, they cannot sleep so easy. They must fear constantly for their lives.

I am not a Marxist, incidentally. Nor a cannibal: I do not propose to eat the rich; especially during Lent. On the other hand, I have more and more appreciation for the wisdom of mediaeval sumptuary laws. There are forms of “conspicuous consumption” so obscene as to constitute a threat to public order.


          Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zubarán, c. 1640

Our new pope, Francis, has been widely quoted exclaiming, “How I would like a Church that is poor, and for the poor.” As Catholic Christians, let’s say we know what he means. We think immediately of the Sermon on the Mount. We then think of the qualifications to this; for instance Bethany, and the story of Mary and Martha. Will the world at large understand him?

As Pope Benedict was saying, in his last address to his clergy in Rome, there were two Vatican Councils in the early Sixties: the Council of the Fathers, and the Council of the Media. The former were speaking a language of faith, the latter a language of power.

To which I like to add, that the media speak a language that is plausible, but untrue; the Church speaks a language that is true, but implausible. Much is lost in the translation from what the Church says to what the media report.

A friend in Venice, getting tired of the media echo chamber through which “Church that is poor” played and replayed, recalled being extremely poor back in the 1970s. “Did God love me more when I was poor?” she asked. “Does he love me less now that I am no longer poor? ” Then added, “What about a pope especially for sinners?”

The media speak a language of power, of politics, larded with a Judas-like hypocrisy (in my humble but experienced opinion). Their exhilaration with Pope Francis’s phrase should worry us. The former Jorge Bergoglio succeeded, in Argentina, in making clear that he was in no way encouraging “liberation theology,” or socialist dreaming. His challenge in the time ahead will be to explain this to the world – in the way he prefers, by example.

For the Sermon on the Mount will triumph, but we can hardly expect an easy triumph. In his book on Francis of Assisi, Chesterton portrayed the enthusiasm of the saint’s original followers, for detachment from material goods. He also presented the chaos that the Holy See had to rein in: for what was saintly in the man soon became an unhealthy excess in the Franciscan order.

Poverty, like anything pursued as an end in itself, can quickly become an idol. To my mind, we need the paradox of the splendor of the Church in her liturgy, music, costumage, and architecture – cast in relief by the poverty of her servants. For then we have a Church in which all the poor may share – a wealth for everyone. Schemes of income redistribution do not cut it. They have nothing to do with Christ, whose message to the rich man was, “Give it all away, and follow me.”

But that was not His first instruction. It began with, follow the commandments. As the better sort of homilists remind us, we are inclined to do everything backwards: and in this case, to jump in at the deep end, even though we might drown in the shallow.

What Pope Francis is teaching is timely, and desperately needed. Poverty can be a Christian virtue, and so much of our wealth and our vanity need stripping down. The poor are our neighbor, as too the orphaned, the diseased, the disabled, the insane, the imprisoned, the geriatric, the unborn. Each must be recognized, in the image of Christ, not in empty words but in action. Not at the commandment of the State, but of Christ: by our own direct action.

 
 
 
David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: http://davidwarrenonline.com/
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.
 

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Comments (24)Add Comment
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written by ken tremendous, March 22, 2013
Nice piece Mr. Warren. It's heartening to see the Catholic right beginning to express faint concern about the social effects of excessive concentration of wealth among soulless plutocrats (sorry "Job creators").

But a question though. If this behavior really does threaten the social order as you rightly think, what exactly is so wrong with a little more redistribution that we're currently doing?
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written by Karen LH, March 23, 2013
@ken,

Catholics (and others) on the left have been indulging in a fair amount of rash judgment. Concern for a healthy economy and culture does not imply a lack of concern for the poor.
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, March 23, 2013
I always think that those most generous of hearts who propose "redistribution of wealth" ought to begin by example. I propose that they immediately divest themselves of 80% of their entire portfolio. I would also suggest that each of them be allowed to decide for themselves those whom they deem most deserving of their largesse. This is even a better deal than what the government allows for us when it seeks to redistribute our "wealth." In the latter case, our money is used to fund abortion, contraception, million dollar golf vacations for the president and London outings for the VP. Oh, we also get to purchase unlimited quantitites of ammunition for Homeland Security with our redistributed tax dollars under this adminsitration. What frauds!
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written by Mark, March 23, 2013
ken misses the point: "If this behavior really does threaten the social order as you rightly think, what exactly is so wrong with a little more redistribution that we're currently doing?"

David Warren already answered that question: "Wealth, today, comes by political connections. Given taxes, regulations, labor laws, there’s no other way to make it to the top."

The government's "redistribution" of wealth is what creates today's "excessive concentration of wealth among soulless plutocrats."
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written by Chris in Maryland, March 23, 2013
Mr. Warren - thank you for something true and beautiful.

Deacon Ed - bingo.

I have learned only recently (from reading work of Benedict XVI) what Christ Jesus was saying about men, when he would tell them something they needed to hear, and then pronounce "He who has ears, let him hear." I am in my late 50's, and never understood just what this meant, until now. In the hermenuetics of politics, all of us are confronted by The Lord: Psalm 135: 15-18. Late have I loved thee...
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written by Austin Ruse, March 23, 2013
Wonderful column...
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written by Rick, March 23, 2013
I had to clip and save the last three paragraphs. Great stuff.
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written by fleshman, March 23, 2013
Well my Dad just had a hip replacement paid for by Medicare...now he can continue to work at his original productive pace.

And my brother recently received unemployment insurance for about a year until he found a new job, so his family did not end up on the street.

And my uncle was an engineer who made a good living designing weapons systems for the Pentagon i.e. government contracts.

My other brother makes a nice living as a corporate manager in part because of the student loan program.


I could go on but you get the idea.

Seems to me that redistribution worked reasonably well in all these cases. And these are in no way atypical.

As for "taxes and regulations" David Warren doesn't know what he's talking about. We've basically eliminated the estate tax, cut dividend and capital gains taxes which overwhelmingly favor the wealthy..and if you're lucky enough to work in finance you even get to book ordinary income as capital gains while also avoiding payroll taxes. So guys like Romney pay a lower effective tax rate than a manager at Starbucks on hundreds of times more income.

And don't expect this to change soon because Wall Street effectively owns both political parties.

I'm not saying that wealth is increasingly concentrated because of the tax system. It's more complicated than that. But for the love of Pete, one easy way to correct this problem of excessive wealth concentration before it gets even more out of hand is higher taxes on the wealthy and somewhat more redistribution.
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written by DeGaulle, March 23, 2013
@ Fleshman:

You dare to accuse Mr Warren, of not knowing what he is talking about. However, it is yourself who is guilty of that. You describe all the benefits your family is receiving, but don't realise where they are being 'redistributed' from. The United States has a catastrophic budget deficit, which continues to grow, so, in reality, your benefits are being redistributed from the tax-payers of the future, many of whom won't even exist, due to contraception and abortion. There are no guarantees about the financial state of the future, and if the future United States is poorer than the present one, the latter will have implemented a redistribution from the poor to the better off. The present system is broken, and won't be fixed by increasing that which is wrong in it.
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written by Jacob, March 23, 2013
@fleshman

If your friends and family members attended a strong church and had moral friends and family they wouldn't need the government.
People are much better at taking care of each other than the government is. There's nothing the government does that can't be done privately and paid for by concerned family and friends if some misfortune should befall a member of the community.

It's the left's myth that you're cold and mean if you don't support government welfare programs. You can be just as warm and fuzzy and caring and want private people to help each other privately.. It worked far better for this country when it was becoming great, not falling apart like it is now because Americans trust in the nanny state over Christ.


Taking out your anger at whatever on Dave Warren is petty and juvenile. (I'm only telling you because I share the sin of anger with you.)
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written by fleshman, March 23, 2013
@ DeGaulle, actually the deficit is getting smaller and has been since 2009. And we are all taxpayers too as are the vast majority of people who receive benefits from the govt directly or indirectly.

The great irony here is that the people who seem to complain most about redistribution are people who 1) have alot and don't want to lose it (even if they made alot of that money with lots of govt. support) or 2) are older.

Let's look at the second one. My guess is that most of the readers of TCT are well north of 50--like Chris in Maryland. The average retiree will gain something like $3-$4 in medicare benefits over his lifetime for every dollar spent in medicare taxes. Sounds like redistribution to me. I don't oppose Medicare but let's please be honest here.

Old people who complain about "redistribution" are by far its biggest beneficiaries and are most dead set against changes to Medicare which is the biggest driver of America's long range budget problem. All this huffing and puffing about the deficit and redistribution by older Republicans is a smokescreen. They want to keep their "earned" and "deserved" redistributed govt. benefits from being siphoned away to younger voters.

When older voters start demanding cuts in their own benefits, then I will know they are serious.

Till then, I say tax the rich more and keep some measure of redistributed benefits going to everyone. It's the most practical way to limit the concentration of wealth and political power that Mr. Warren rightly is concerned about!
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written by Ken Tremendous, March 23, 2013
@ Jacob

Really? you think friends and family and the Church could just pass the hat around to pay for a heart bypass surgery or that unemployment insurance could be made up with good hearted folks tossing in their unwanted pocket change every week.

Do you have health insurance? If so even if its not Medicare or Medicaid, its a product that is heavily regulated and subsidized by the government. You get sick and Aetna pays--there's no "friends and family and Church" chipping in --you're talking a large anonymous risk pool which yes, redistributes money from the healthy to the sick. But that's OK because you can tell yourself that the govt. isn't the one doing it?

The degree of unreality in the way certain conservatives think is just amazing.
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written by fleshman, March 23, 2013
@ Jacob

Actually I'm not angry. But I think its a little unrealistic to think in an age where health care expenses for common ailments (cancer, heart disease etc.) could easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars that these costs are going to be born by families and communities.

I agree with David Warren and you that we should do more individually for "the orphaned, the diseased, the disabled, the insane, the imprisoned, the geriatric, the unborn." But the fact that the state is the largest purveyor of services to benefit these sorts of people is not going to change. In a big complex country like the US there is no other way.
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written by pgk, March 23, 2013
I agree with the thrust of this article, but the reason redistribution generally is counter-productive is that it rewards bad behavior. For example, if children refuse to support their elderly parents, and the state does it for them, they are receiving a financial reward as compared to those children who do care for their parents. It is very difficult to enact redistribution schemes which do not create such perverse incentives.
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written by Chris in Maryland, March 23, 2013
Something heavily regulated and subsidized by the government is not insurance. We have health benefits. We do not have insurance.

There is profound irony in having lawyers, who charge by the hour, gravely pronouncing that doctors are profiting too much. If we want to "fix" everything, let's also have the doctors set the salary of the lawyers...then you'll see some real filibusters.
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written by DS, March 23, 2013
Schemes of redistribution "cut it" for Pope Benedict. He quite explicitly defends them in Caritas in Veritate, though not as an end unto themselves.
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written by Gabe, March 23, 2013
Yes he did DS. But frankly most people who frequent this site don't much care about what Benedict has said except insofar as it agrees with their conservative philosophy.

George Weigel famously bracketed parts of CV--declaring them the revenge of the "peace and justice crowd" whatever that was supposed to mean. In many ways they are just as selective as liberal Catholics, but less honest since at least liberals usually admit this is what they are doing.

To put it the most charitably possible, these folks (including many of the authors here) think the Democratic party is just evil for its support of abortion and Obama is trying to destroy the Church and so they have to oppose everything Obama and the Democratic party supports.

But this produces nutty and lopsided analyses of what the Church has said and what Catholics should support now. Sooner or later it will catch up with them if it hasn't already.
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written by Brad Miner, March 23, 2013
@ Gabe: Thanks so much for your comments, so full of, what?, caritas?
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written by Gabe, March 23, 2013
Brad, if you really believe your authors have honestly wrestled with kind things Benedict (and previous Church documents) have said about social democracy and redistribution and et al. I'll gladly shut up. I've frequented this site for a while. I haven't seen it. When economics and political economy are concerned we always get something that sounds alot more like AEI or the Club for Growth (dressed up in religious language of course)than the fullness of the Catholic social gospel. This piece was a rare exception that actually mentioned poverty and inequality, but only in the context once again of rejecting any sort of government action to address it.

I'm not a lefty, but I wish you were a little more balanced. Has TCT ever said anything supportive of any government program anywhere?
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written by maineman, March 24, 2013
The problem with redistribution schemes is, as the defensive comments herein belie, that they are predicated on the impulse for revenge. And that they are materialist in their essence.

A solid catechesis would immediately disclose, to those who favor government mandated schemes, that they violate the principle of subsidiarity, intrude on the freedom of the individual, and - as Mr. Warren points out - are a form of idolatry. And yes, witness to the faith mandates forceful opposition to the morally and pragmatically challenged schemes of Obama and the Democrats, for their assault on life and the family, if nothing else.

As for what Benedict thinks, himself, about redistributive schemes, I suggest reading the section in the first book of Jesus of Nazareth on the temptations of Christ. I assure you, there is nothing favorable to them there.
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written by DS, March 24, 2013
The CV text from the Vatican website uses the word "redistribution" eight times.
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written by Jim Flynn, March 24, 2013
Be careful about eating your seed corn; many hungry winters will follow and the poor will suffer the most. On to good and evil! It is interesting that if I funish the car and the gun for those who go into the bank, rob it and kill a teller I am an accesssory to a crime before God and man and will pay a price. Obama et'al provide the funds and the encouragement to murder 6 million + babies in the womb his first 6 years in office and I am suppose to believe him as he walks us down the road of social programs with a denial of a debt problem? There can be no charity toward the poor until the is love of God. Political strategy, yes charity no. "if you love me keep my commandments". We live in an evil age.
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written by Brian English, March 25, 2013
"As for what Benedict thinks, himself, about redistributive schemes, I suggest reading the section in the first book of Jesus of Nazareth on the temptations of Christ. I assure you, there is nothing favorable to them there."

Exactly. The "man DOES live by bread alone" Catholics have completely missed the point.

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written by grok Hadrian, March 26, 2013
I like the idea of everyone chipping in to help the poor and needy, in fact I am very much in favor of 'redistribution of wealth'. But to use an extreme example, Hitler was very good at 'redistributing wealth' and he brought German out of a deep depression and feed the starving of Germany. Should Germans have supported his government. Of course not. He was a power hungry murderer who hated God and the Catholic Church.

Likewise, just because President Obama is supportive of helping the poor, he also supports the destruction of the family, the murder of millions of babies, and many other things that are detrimental to the Church and society. I have told members of my family that I am willing to suffer for God. Though I feel that President Obama has done a better job of handling the economy than the Republicans would have, he also is harming people in a much more dangerous way, spiritually. We Americans are selling our souls for a thicker wallet in this case. I wish we had a decent choice. It is the lesser of two evils anymore.

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