The Walking Stick Problem

If you say, as Bacon once did, that knowledge is power, you will find yourself arraigned pretty quickly on charges of wanting to rape the earth. But knowledge is power, and knowledge cannot be applied in this world without exercising authoritative dominion. This axiom needs to be defended and it needs to be defended without appearing to be a mindless defense of strip mining.

For all his virtues, Tolkien has unfortunately contributed to our confusion on this issue.

“Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones . . . Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well” ” (The Hobbit, p. 60).

We have this sturdy mythology that makes us assume that elves get everything done by purity of mind, while goblins are down in the forge heating up the metal in order to bang on it. And of course, when we do this we know better, because we do know that elves actually make things. But whenever that fact becomes a little too obvious or a little too apparent, we politely avert our gaze. We ignores it.

The “knowledge is power” adage is equally true when the good guys are doing it. It is true when you are clearing a plot of land to build a cabin, or cutting down a sapling in order to carve a fine walking stick, or shaping a block of stone for a place in the wall of Minas Turret. In the list of things that goblins make, all of them would be capable of noble uses with the exception of the instruments of torture.

But a pickaxe, by definition, is designed to make the dirt move when the dirt didn’t necessarily ask to be moved. To which — I want to maintain — both the elves and the goblins could reply, “Deal with it, dirt. Knowledge is power.” Now the elves are famously fair-spoken and gracious in speech, and so they wouldn’t exactly put it that way. But that does not change the reality of what is happening to the dirt. Someone who knows more than the dirt does is moving it around, usually without permission. That someone is himself a creature, and will ultimately answer to his Creator for his motives in doing whatever it was he was doing. And when that account is ultimately settled, I think it is safe to say the judgment will not be “for making and using a pickaxe.”

Look up from your computer, and look around you. If you are anything like me, you are surrounded by tools, and by the products of tools. And if you tallied them all up to three generations, we are talking about millions of very clever tools. This is true, not because we are orcs, but because we are men.

I suggest that we need to make our theological peace with our tools. We need to stop factoring them out of our discussions. We need to stop treating them as invisible. To treat them that way is simply to set ourselves up for picking an arbitrary date in our technological advancement, and treating everything prior to that date as de facto “not to be considered.” And after that entirely arbitrary “year one,” we have determined we are henceforth going to live a simple life — the Amish with their buggies and Wendell Berry with his typewriter. So fifty years from now are we going to be dealing with a group of the “simple folk” who still use the iPhone 4? Will it be a matter of high spiritual principle? Or perhaps spiritual myopia?

I want to maintain that the central question we must all answer is “what are you building?” and not “what tool is that?”

The Politics of the Tithe

I think it was Luther who said that a man required two conversions, the first of his heart and the second of his wallet. Have you ever noticed how some people are preeminently quotable, such that all sorts of pithy sayings get attributed to them whether or not they said it? So Luther, or maybe Chesterton, or Churchill, or maybe Oscar Wilde. It fits best with Luther though, so let’s run with that.

I want to begin by summarizing in a paragraph what I understand our obligations with regard to tithing to be, and then to briefly expand on each one of those points.

The tithe is a continuing moral obligation for the people of God (1 Cor. 9:13-14). The lawful recipients of the tithe are those who labor in the ministry (1 Cor. 9:14), the poor (Dt. 14:29), and the merchants who supply the goods for your thanksgiving feasts (Dt. 14:23-29). The tithe is owed on the increase of wealth (Dt. 14:22), not on the wealth itself. The tithe is to be paid on the increase that is brought into your barns, and not on the part of the crop that the locusts ate, which has ramifications for the old net/gross question. And last, the church is to teach authoritatively on the obligation to tithe, but is not to do so in any way that could reasonably be interpreted as a self-serving merchandizing of the gospel (Phil. 4:17).

So let’s work through these. First, there is no dispute that the Levites of the Old Testament were supported by the tithe. They had no inheritance like the other tribes; the Lord was their inheritance. This meant that their needs were supplied by the tithe that the other tribes paid on their increase. Paul says in 1 Cor. 9:14 that ministers of the gospel in the new covenant were to be supported in exactly the same way (even so, just the same way, kai houtos). The tithe predated Moses (Heb. 7:2), and the tithe has survived him.

The tithe is not limited to what goes into the offering at church. A portion of it should go there (Gal. 6:6), of course, but it may also go to your cousin with Wycliffe, the homeless guy at the bus station, Add it all up, and it should come to at least ten percent of your increase.

Guilt and Glory

Mankind was made for glory, and naturally hungers after glory. There is therefore nothing wrong with seeking glory, provided we seek it where the true glory may be found. “Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours” (1 Cor. 3:21). Paul is saying that when glory is offered us in Christ (all things are yours), it is high folly to try to glory in men apart from Christ. Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord (Ps. 34:2) — and when we boast in God, the humble hear it and are glad.

Sin is not seeking after glory, but rather falling short of it. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). When God renders judgment in accordance with our deeds, one of the things He will evaluate is the way in which we sought after glory. “Who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life” (Rom. 2:6–7).

As a race, we were created to be glory bearers. We need glory. It is no more optional for us than oxygen, or food, or sex, or drink. The need to be a glory, and to glorify other things, is woven into the very fabric of our identity. We cannot not seek it. Man is the image and glory of God, and woman is the glory of man (1 Cor. 11:7). This is what we were created to be, and we cannot opt out of the burden of carrying glory. Glory is weighty; it is challenging. But it is all of these things precisely because of the relationship we have to God our Creator.

Piketty’s Point

Thomas Piketty has a detailed response to the “number-cooking” criticisms leveled at his book by the Financial Times, which you can read here.

Now my point is not to run get my hip-waders on in order to get into the stats and numbers. I am afraid I would catch very few mountain trout that way, and thus would not be in a position to say if there were any of them in there.

So if I am not a numbers wonk, what defensible basis might I have for being so hostile to Piketty’s message? For he does have one — here is what he says what it is:

“The main message coming from my book is . . . that we need more democratic transparency about wealth dynamics, so that we are able to adjust our institutions and policies to whatever we observe.”

Let me reduce this to its essentials: “We want to be able to see what everyone has, so that we can take it if we want.”

Saved By the Bell

I didn’t want to read Piketty’s book Capital, and probably wouldn’t have, but now comes a development that removes every trace of all my guilt and shame. I didn’t want to read it because he believes in way-progressive tax rates, which is grabby, grabby, grabby, and grabby, grabby, grabby is contrary to the spirit of the gospel. You know. Second, he wants a global tax, which means a global tax collector. Ick. Poo. Gakk.

But now, I am saved by the bell. No need to worry about it. It appears that the numbers were cooked.

Postscript: But . . . since we are talking about economic numbers for the whole world, it should not be surprising that there is room for some discussion. You can read more here and a response from Piketty here. So maybe the numbers aren’t cooked. Maybe they are just half baked.

Jabba the Catt

In a sinful and fallen world, any blessing can be abused. The temptation to lord it over others is a constant one, and the human heart will use whatever materials are ready to hand — intelligence, looks, education, money, age, strength, and so on.

This means that inequity in the distribution of wealth does present temptations — most certainly, and welcome to earth. But Scripture teaches us to deal with sin where the sin is, which is under our own sternum. The cause of our faults is not to be located elsewhere. Lust is not caused by beautiful women, covetousness is not caused by other people owning things, and dishonoring parents is not caused by them asking you to do something.

If a man has five million dollars and I have five, then he will no doubt be tempted to believe he is better than I am. This is often and easily noted. What is almost never noted is my temptation to believe I am better than he is. If we both succumb to the temptation, we both commit the same sin . . . but at least he has a better argument. I am constantly reminded of Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a Christian — “one who believes the New Testament is a divinely inspired book, admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor.”

If someone points out that great inequity of wealth creates a power relationship that is morally problematic, then what do we create when we create a mechanism that can fix this inequity? Right. We have created a larger power differential. Granted the problem is a big hole, why are we digging it deeper?
We justify this to ourselves by pretending that we are not digging it deeper, and we do this by leaving the government and its powers out of our consideration. But what happens when we do the sensible thing and include the government and its powers among the fat cats?

Those who lament this wealth inequity of ours, like Piketty does, want to “fix it” by jacking the marginal tax rate on the super-wealthy up to 80 percent, and up to 60 percent for those making between 200K and 500K. But how can you do this without creating an uber-wealthy entity — the government — which has now just successfully taken 80 percent of the earning of all the super-wealthy, and which has an army, navy, powers of coercion, and so on, and which comes into my house on a fairly regular basis in order to boss me around? Why are you guys arguing that we should take most of the money away from all the fat cats and give it to Jabba the Catt?

Envy Crackles

I recently raised a question in a Facebook thread that I wanted to expand on here. It has to do with the increasingly common idea that “inequality of income” is inherently a moral problem.

So here’s the question:

If you had a magic button in front of you which, if you pressed it, would result in all the poor people in the world being 5X better off than they are now, in real terms, but the price would be that the top 1% would be 100X times better off, would you press the button? Pressing the button would increase the inequality, but it would decrease everyone’s day-to-day income problems. Is the mere fact of the inequality a moral problem? Is the size of the gulf between rich and poor a moral problem?

There is another way of asking the question, only this way highlights the darkness of envy a little bit better. If you had a button in front of you that would cut the standard of living that poor people have by 50%, but would also cut the standard of living that the top 1% had by a much greater amount, thus reducing the inequality, would you press that button?

In case you hadn’t anticipated it, we do have a working version of this second button. It is called “government help.”

One of the central culprits in generating economic fallacies is the sin of envy. It is a creeping, cancerous wickedness. The questions given above are a litmus test for envy. If you would hesitate pressing the button in the first scenario, for even a moment, then you have discovered that your heart is a central part of the problem. And anyone who hesitates pressing the first button will end his course of economic damnation by insisting that hellish poverty for all is far to be preferred than inequitable wealth for all.

Now this is a thought experiment intended to reveal attitudes. In the thought experiment, we are assuming that nobody is getting ripped off or murdered in order to achieve these results. We are assuming no sweetheart deals with the White House. We are pretending that I am not a manufacturer of the new curly light bulbs lobbying Congress in order to make my old school Edisonian competition illegal. No dirty work.

Parable of the Ten Investment Portfolios

Given the emphasis that the president placed on “income inequality” in his 2014 SOTU speech, I thought it necessary for us to review a few things from the Bible. We have wandered so far off from the teaching of Jesus that some of this pandering seems compelling and/or compassionate to us. It is actually evil.

Allow me to say a few things in this second paragraph that will seem outrageous to some, while doing so in the hope that you will then allow me to explain myself. I have argued repeatedly that free grace creates free men, and that free men are the only ones who can create free markets. Free markets are God’s design for us. If you don’t love the idea of free markets, you don’t love Jesus rightly. Christian discipleship requires an understanding of, and deep love for, economic liberty.

So why invoke Jesus by name? Why bring Him into it? First, He is the Lord of all things, including what we do with our money. So there’s that. Second, in his fine book Friends of Unrighteous Mammon,  Stewart Davenport shows that in 19th century America,  two contrary camps developed among professing Christians (and they have been with us since). He called them the “clerical economists” and the “contrarians.” The clerical economists followed the insights of Adam Smith, but did so within a decidedly Christian framework. But as they did this, their language did not emphasize Jesus so much. They were more about “the spirit of Christianity” and a “that wise and good Providence.” Their work was “curiously lacking in overt references to Christ,” even though they were orthodox Christians. Their opponents, the contrarians, went the opposite direction. Their teaching was all about Jesus, and individual discipleship, and the hard sayings of Jesus . . . and that engine was hooked up to socialist assumptions. In short, those Christians with sound economic understanding allowed themselves to be rhetorically outmaneuvered, and allowed the left to have the rhetorical high ground. But coercive taxation is not the way of Jesus, and blessing your neighbor with an actual job is. And so, no, let’s not leave Jesus out of it.

And so, speaking of the difficult words of Jesus, let’s take a look at the parable of the ten investment portfolios.