Inequality and "The Broken Ladder"

Wrestling with inequality shapes much of current political discourse, it seems, at home and abroad. If you pay attention, you have heard a great deal about growing pay and wealth disparities, the Gini coefficient, and other sundry items, in a growing number of articles and books. The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die by Professor Keith Payne of UNC-Chapel Hill is an important contribution to this growing bundle of literature.

Angus Deaton's The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality established a powerful set of insights around income and life-expectancy, that health and wealth are two measures of quality of life, from the perspective of the economic sciences. Payne adds immense depth from his personal research and that of others in the field of psychology and neuroscience.

Both Deaton (a Nobel Prize-winner) and Payne are fine scholars, and these two books are both eminently readable. Both have important scholarly citations, but the text is not unduly burdened or interrupted by the scholarly attribution. (I must confess that a footnote or end note can send me down a rabbit-hole of parallel research.) Payne includes a considerable amount of firsthand observation-- stories from his Kentucky childhood, his brother's incarceration, his experience as a father. In fact, Payne overcomes some of the limitations that I felt in reading J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Vance could describe well his experience of growing up and moving away and, more recently, moving back (after the book), and he could describe his neighbors and family, but I found his account lacking in the prescriptions for what changes could happen-- both in the individual and in the community.

The Broken Ladder, attests from a psychological vantage, the implicit comparisons that we humans automatically make and the consequences of those comparisons. Payne describes the logic of those consequences (chapter three), its corresponding politics (chapter four), its health consequences (chapter five, indebted to Deaton's work), its impact on belief (chapter six), its impact on racial judgments and implicit bias (chapter seven), and corporate pay disparity (chapter eight). The final chapter prescribes some dimensions of how we might change things personally to encounter greater satisfaction.

Payne spells out, in data, our situation. For instance, in chapter eight, Payne explains that in 2012 the average CEO earned $12.3 million, about 350 times the average worker's income of $35,000 (p. 194). We'd be hard-pressed to explain how they're 350 times more important or productive or worthwhile.

Naturally, to a text like this, I bring my theological "hat" to the conversation. The insatiable desire, the "restlessness" described by St. Augustine is aptly described by René Girard and his disciples as "mimetic desire." Pope Francis may describe it in terms of the "globalization of indifference." In any event, what is needed is some combination of personal and systemic change. Payne and Pope Francis would agree, the problem is not just "the other"; the problem is us. More joyful, longer lives are born of solidarity and fixing the broken ladder.

I should add, I am awaiting from the library a copy of Richard V. Reeves' Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It, which will likely deepen this conversation.

Más sabe el diablo. . .

It's a phrase of Mexican origin, I'm told:  "Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo." It translates to "The devil knows more because he is old than because he is the devil."

Often, proverbs in our native tongue do not surprise us as they are so common. We may not think twice about an expression like "The apple does not fall far from the tree," but its use in another language requires an explanation of what the phrase implies. Because a phrase is well-known to us, it may not captures us quite the way that one from a second language might. Sometimes expressions are so particular that they only can be understood in a particular context. [Another wonderful Mexican phrase, "No me cae el veinte," refers to a 20 peso coin getting stuck in a pay phone. The adage is a means of expressing that the speaker does not understand a concept that the other has shared-- just as the coin is stuck in the payphone and one cannot yet proceed with the call. Sadly, inflation and technology are rendering that phrase obsolete.]

Similarly, this Spanish-language wisdom requires some unpacking: "Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo." The devil knows more because he is old than because he is the devil.

One attribute of the phrase is to suggest that the devil and all his wiles, enticements, deceptions, and lures are not born of any special gift so much as a deep and long encounter with human nature, a keen observation of humans and our choices. The devil has been at the task of temptation for a long time, and he knows his trade, suggests the saying.

The phrase in actual use conveys a positive sense of what one learns from experience.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, via his 10,000 Hour Rule, holds that 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" are needed to become world-class in any field. While others now dispute Gladwell's conclusion (cf. a study from Princeton), this phrase suggests that experience matters, and it matters more than natural or supernatural gifts.

Here, I'd differentiate "experience" from "occurrences." One can be a bystander to or even participant in great moments of human history without any deep engagement or deep reflection. Our lives are filled with many daily events and occurrences. An encounter with a stranger, travel across the globe, a simple exchange while making a purchase at the grocery store, an occurrence becomes experience, or wisdom, through reflection that digests and synthesizes the event.

It ain't enough just to be there; one has to engage both at the time and after to draw real learning from it. In so many ways, the pace of modern life discourages this deeper reflection that allows occurrences to develop into genuine experience. The following adaptation of the adage, in a way, makes the same point with humor:
"The devil knows more because of Facebook than because he is the devil." While some may disclose embarrassing behavior on Facebook and others may share too many cat videos, converting an occurrence into experience requires reflection. And the reflection bears a prize that is worth the effort that teaches a deeper way of seeing.

As a teenager in forensics, I often concluded my speeches: "Guido the plumber and Michelangelo obtained their marble from the same quarry, but what each saw in the marble made the difference between a nobleman's sink and a brilliant sculpture." A really fine lawyer will see things in law that others, even decent lawyers, may not see. A great architect will imagine edifices in glass, steel, and stone that others cannot conceive. There is a place for natural gift, but, at the heart of it, the difference is the development and refinement of a vision born of experience and imagination.

The Mexican adage "Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo" encourages us not to rely so much on natural gift as acquiring a deeper vision, learning from our experiences.

That we may know Easter Joy


Friends,

I wrote for Catholic Relief Service's ethical trade blog earlier this week on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster. The text is very much in keeping with the spirit of this blog site. The post on CRS is entitled:  That We May Know Easter Joy: Lament for Rana Plaza. It brings together authentically, I believe, my personal spirituality with that of my work at The Human Thread campaign. Please, feel free to comment here about the writing.

Join the campaign for Fair Trade and Sustainable Clothing from Kohl's and Macy's

Between now and Black Friday (Nov. 25), The Human Thread calls for sending postcards to the CEOs of Macy’s and Kohl’s in support of a living wage at the sites where our clothes are made. I'd be grateful for your help.

When we visit a supermarket, we can purchase organic and fair trade items. When we visit an auto dealer, we can buy a hybrid. Some chains build their identity and customer base by offering those options. We know that the hybrid and the organic, fair trade items may cost us a bit more, but we are willing to pay for them for a broader benefit.

Except for a few niche clothing items sold in a few boutiques, as of yet, no major chain sells clothing sourced in other countries that is fair trade. But we know that most of it comes from places we read on our labels: Bangladesh, China, India, Vietnam, Honduras, Mexico. Pope Francis has called the wages paid those workers: “slave labor.”

Given the woeful wages in garment-producing countries, did the workers who made my clothing receive a wage that will support them and their families? Knowing that the garment industry is the second biggest user of water and the consequent immense harm that the garment industry does to the environment, we also ask what care and provision was made for the care of creation in the production of this garment?

For years members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility have engaged retailers, including Macy’s and Kohl’s on supply chain issues. However they have rejected calls to address wages at the sites where our clothes are made.

After the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, Professor Jerry Davis of the Ross School of Business wrote a letter to The New York Times. In it he said that change never comes about from investor/shareholder actions without an accompanying consumer effort. This is our effort to make such a difference. We’ve shared this Campaign with him; he is very supportive.

If you agree with us, we'd ask you to sign, stamp, and mail a postcard to Macy's and to Kohl's telling them as much. Both of these companies have good track records in various areas but, if they would support this effort, things would be so much better. We are telling them: If they will lead, we will buy.

If you want to ask others, friends or members of any of your organizations, to get involved, please  email our campaign manager at campaignmanager@humanthreadcampaign.org, indicating your postal address and how many postcards you need. They will be sent by return mail.



E.J. Dionne and the 2016 Election

Last June, I reviewed E.J. Dionne Jr.'s Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent. You can find the review here. I like Dionne, as a writer in The Washington Post and Commonweal, and I enjoy his contributions to MSNBC.
Since 2004, Dionne writes a new book in a presidential election year-- 2004, 2008, 2012, and, now, 2016. Given my delight in his 2012 offering mentioned above, I sought out his 2016 title: Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond. As I delighted in his Our Divided Political Heart, I had high expectations for Why the Right Went Wrong. Frankly, it was a much more difficult read, likely not a reflection at all on Dionne's work. In fact, I think that it has much to do with me and how I find myself (and our country).

I resided in Chile during the 2012 election. While I devoured the news that I could find via El Mercurio and my reading of Politico's Playbook and online versions of U.S. news., I still experienced that election at a distance. Reading Dionne's 2012 work was, then, a deeper dive into the currents around that election.
In 2016, I find myself with this book encircled by news of the election. While I reside in a home without cable television, I have access to round-the-clock accounts of the election at work, in the newspapers, and in my Facebook and Twitter feed. Sadly, whether my preferred candidate win or lose, the country seems so badly divided, and our political discourse, while not lofty before, seems so badly eroded and so coarse as we race to the bottom in 2016.

In short, Dionne pulls together intellectual strands and tensions within conservative thought. Dionne retells the story of the Republican party and conservatism from the days of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the the 1964 campaign of Barry Goldwater alongside William F. Buckley's efforts to create an intellectual foundation for broad currents of conservatism. Dionne revisits all the elections and administration from Eisenhower to 2016 and assesses the adjustments and realignments (and missed opportunities) made within the Republican party for each election. While I was familiar with the general sweep of the history he retold, I did encounter nuggets unknown to me that made the journey a bit more worthwhile.

The final chapter, as any good whodunit requires, suggests important lines for a renewed conservatism, albeit the unrequested suggestion of a liberal (Dionne). He ignites my desire to revisit Edmund Burke's 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France, a classical defense of conservatism, read in my undergraduate days. While a fine book, it is a depressing romp through the history that brings us to such an ugly, partisan mess in Washington.

Thanks to MATC for hosting Bryan Stevenson

This afternoon, alongside nine other parishioners from St. Benedict the Moor, we attended a lecture by Bryan Stevenson at Milwaukee Area Technical College. Readers of this blog may recall that I reviewed Mr. Stevenson's extraordinary book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption last year. Others may know of my sister Kelly's work alongside the Equal Justice Initiative, defending those condemned to death in Alabama, founded by Stevenson in 1989.

Stevenson gave an inspiring talk. I will avoid recounting his major points, as he has made some similar remarks elsewhere, and I believe that it is worth encountering him, his story, and his mission from him, be it through his book, his TED Talk, or an opportunity to meet him in person. Simply put, one cannot go away uninspired. His zeal is contagious.

After his address, MATC also arranged for a short panel discussion in answer to what Stevenson's remarks. I have posted additional photos of the event on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/coxcristobal/media_set?set=a.10153621921183127.1073741888.516023126&type=3&notif_t=like

Thanks to Mary Lou Stebbins for getting my ticket to the event! Thanks to MATC for hosting it! Thanks to Mr. Stevenson for making the time to come to Milwaukee and share his message with us!

The Next Phase of the Journey

Friends, on Christmas Eve, amid many gifts, I was offered a job and accepted. Tomorrow, I begin the next phase of my journey as the campaign organizer for The Human Thread campaign. Tomorrow, I arrive into Milwaukee, WI, to begin my new work.

The Human Thread is a campaign to raise consciousness and empower Catholics to advocate for the plight of garment workers worldwide. The movement was inspired by the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh. The devastating event killed 1,133 garment workers, and exposed the wide range of abuses connected to the sourcing of clothing.

I am grateful for the prayers and encouragement of so many in this process. I am also very grateful for the trust being placed in me by those of The Human Thread campaign. Thanks, too, to St. Joseph the Worker, a faithful friend amid these months of job-seeking.
Holy Family at Burgos Cathedral, Spain

PRAYER TO ST. JOSEPH THE WORKER
(For employment)

God our Father and our Creator, You bestow on
Us gifts and talents to develop and use in accord with Your will.
Grant to me, through the intercession of St. Joseph the Worker,
As model and guide, employment and work, that I may with dignity,
provide for those who depend upon me for care and support.
Grant me the opportunities to use
my energy and my talents and abilities
for the good of all,
and the glory of Your name. Amen