Tag Archives: Cowen

Inequality & Spirituality

Here is NPR with economist Tyler Cowen on his new book, Average is Over. The core of Cowen’s thesis is that we have become used to looking at things like the average or median wage to gauge the economy. In post-WW2 USA, and really in the US for most of its experience, the economy (GDP) grew and everyone got richer. Labor was always scarce, there was always the frontier, the competition was lying in smoking ruins allowing monopoly-like cartels that could share the wealth. All that is over. Outsized returns are now accruing to the 1% alone. Because of data tracking, which is really just getting started, we will identify the contributors easier. If you are talented it will become easier to get real rich. If you are not, well, robots and computers are going to replace you. The end result is increasing financial inequality. Not the 1% and the 99%, but to Cowan the 15% and the 85%.

There are two things that Cowen completely misses. Actually I don’t think he misses them so much as dismisses them as not credible. First, his explanation of happiness for a large group not in the 15%:

“Imagine a very large bohemian class of the sort that say, lives in parts of Brooklyn,” Cowen explains. “… It will be culturally upper or upper-middle class, but there will be the income of lower-middle class. They may have lives that are quite happy and rewarding, but they may not have a lot of savings. There will be a certain fragility to this existence.”

What does he mean by this? Well, I’ll take a stab. What he means is a class of poor enlightenment liberals. Let’s get even more explicit. A group that will largely practice self-restraint and late couple-pairing to raise their one child, but has no problem with: no-attachment sex, unlimited abortion, no-fault divorce and recreational drugs. Because they will have pseudo-prestigious (not real prestigious or they would be in the 15%) credentials they will be able to separate themselves from the riff-raff. They will socially amplify the difference by culturally associating with things the opposite of Monster Truck Rallies, say Shakespeare in the Park, which will be funded by a grant from the NEA in conjunction with the ABC foundation.

The first thing that Cowen misses is that we’ve seen that world before many times. A real power upper-crust, a cultural power broader based club like group with exclusionary behaviors and markers, and the people of the land. In the New Testament that equates to the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees and the crowds. What was the big problem with Jesus? He challenged and made fun of the Pharisees pseudo-prestigious markers. He ate with tax collectors and sinners – the equivalent of going to a monster truck rally. What eventually breaks out in such a world is Mary’s Magnificat – “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy (Luke 1:51-54).” That has happened many times.

The second thing that Cowen misses or discounts to nothing is the Spiritual understanding of prior American generations. Is it a co-incidence that great inequality is emerging at the same general time of a great falling away from Christian teaching among the real ruling class? Cowen is an economist and it makes sense to explain to concentration as economic rationality. Talented people are more in demand, so their pay has become outsized. That is part of the happy justification for actually using position to extract the rents – I deserve it, I’m a meritocrat. Did not previous generations have such justifications? (The answer is yes). Sometimes they acted on them, but in the west they were typically bounded by Christian teaching if just the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) or the Rich Man and his barns (Luke 12:13-21).

In a world oppressed by the rich and the oral law (your credit score record combined with all that big data), where the bread and circuses have lost their enchantment but we continue to rut around anyway because that is all there it, where society has become highly segmented class wise – hear this proclamation: Christ has come to set you free. There is neither Harvard nor University of Michigan, Temp employee nor Junior exec, beta-bohemian or alpha-elite. For you are all one in Jesus Christ. In Christ you are heirs. Through the Spirit you can live a life not of passing moments like envy and drunkeness and orgies and the like, but of of love, joy, peace, self-control. Because Christ has set you free.

Think that might preach?