Our Paradoxical Times: An economy of waste, a culture of the absurd
Anyone who has read John Steinbeck’s harrowing novel The Grapes of Wrath, or anyone who knows anything about the marketing of both baby formula and cigarettes in the third world, or anyone who examines military contracts, knows the lengths to which businesses will sometimes to go to enhance profits through waste. Steinbeck chronicled the mass destruction of fruit to keep prices high when there were millions of poor who needed food. More recently, both baby formula and cigarettes have been made freely or cheaply available in Africa in order to get people hooked on nicotine and bottle feeding, so that new markets would be created. Military waste, and the companies that bilk the military, are the stuff of legend.
And of course our economy is largely driven by advertising. Businesses make impossible claims and create ridiculous associations for their products in the hope of inducing the gullible and the perennially unsatisfied (aka most of us) to spend money we shouldn’t on products that will make no significant difference in our lives. G. K. Chesterton once observed how odd it is that advertising works. Why should anyone buy something because the company that stands to benefit from the sale says that it is good? Ah well, by now we have all been taught to feel guilty if we are not spending. In fact, wasteful spending is the Catch-22 of our modern approach to economics.
In an interview with Pope Francis on the economy late last year (see our news story and excerpts from La Stampa), the Pope emphasized that our modern globalist economic system sustains itself through waste. But he noticed that this is not only an economic problem; it is political and social as well. In fact, it is profoundly cultural:
What I have noticed is that this system sustains itself through a culture of waste, which I have already discussed various times. There is the politics, the sociology and even the attitude of waste. When money, instead of man, is at the center of the system, when money becomes an idol, men and women are reduced to simple instruments of a social and economic system, which is characterized, even dominated, by profound inequalities. So we discard whatever is not useful to this logic….
Of businessmen and bureaucrats
Not just business, no. Many commentators have noted the wasteful character of government solutions to an endless list of “problems”. These solutions rely on impersonal regulation, often directed to self-defeating goals. They require massive expenditure to sustain armies of bureaucrats who, with no stake in the outcome, listlessly process more and more persons and activities through their pre-determined systems. There is no incentive for either efficiency or genuine service. Worse still, this wastefulness is exacerbated by the myth that government is the best solution to everything; and by the desire of ordinary persons to “work the system”; and by the tremendous costs of resisting or circumventing the system’s ill-effects.
Consider the story, also in today’s news, about the legal victory of an Indiana home schooling group. Six years ago, this group hosted an All Souls Day masquerade dinner dance at which chicken was served. One mother, whose child was allergic to chicken, asked if the group could serve beef. The group could not do that but suggested that the affected family simply bring their own beef instead.
So the mother complained to the Indiana Civil Rights Commission and won a $5,000 judgment against the home-schooling organization for failing to provide a disability-related accommodation! It took the Fishers Adolescent Catholic Enrichment Society six years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney time to get this decision overturned by the Indiana Supreme Court. This was the cost in time, talent and treasure of a conflict over chicken and beef which affected exactly one person.
This case is a parody of itself, of course, and yet something very like it plays out across the West again and again in disagreements involving employee conduct, protected minorities, environmental regulations, zoning ordinances, building codes, secularization standards, and innumerable other regulations controlling nearly every facet of life as implemented by government at all levels. It is not that some regulations are not worth having, or that some cases are not worth fighting. But somewhere there is a tipping point. Unfortunately, it is now so far in the rear view mirror as to be almost invisible.
In nearly every respect, we inhabit a culture of waste. Waste is in the moral air we breathe. Were it not so much a part of daily life, we would realize how ludicrous it is. Call it culture of the absurd.
Catch-22 and Beyond
In the 1950s, Joseph Heller wrote a best-selling satirical novel about American military life during World War II. Published in 1961, Catch-22 focused on the efforts of Captain John Yossarian and his fellow airmen to keep their sanity while fulfilling their service requirements, in the hope of getting home in one piece not only physically but mentally. I read the book at some point in my late teens or early twenties and thought it brilliant. As illustrated above, the phrase “catch-22” has even entered our language. It refers to a situation in which the very rules ensure a negative outcome no matter what choice is made.
In a later novel, Closing Time (1994), Heller returned to his characters, now aging ungracefully in the New York City of the 1990s. This enabled him to complete the job of satirizing our politics, the decline of our society, and the greed and hypocrisy of both business and culture. I have not read this one but, in the same vein, I cannot help but recall Charles Dickens, who portrayed the absurdity of modern government so effectively in Chapter 10 of Little Dorrit:
The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.
Alas, both satirists are now dead (Dickens in 1870; Heller in 1999). Still, Pope Francis is clearly right that we must restore the human person to the center of all our plans, our systems, our structures. Sadly, our bizarre belief that human beings are cosmic accidents creates its own Catch-22. What then?
As it turns out, the whole secret of Heller’s paradox is to reject the lie, to realize that each human person is ordered to and loved by God. This Divine folly is the one way out, because “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor 1:25). For both individuals and whole cultures, the escape from waste and absurdity is the same, just as the Pope’s most famous predecessor said. “Repent therefore and turn again,” admonished St. Peter, “that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).
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