When Is Enough Too Much?


Winter Fundraiser 2012, Day Three

A response to my initial post for this fundraiser has stayed with me (yes, I do read comments when feeling well enough to sit here). It describes in just a few sentences what I did not articulate to begin with.

Laine said:

… assuming one has the basics for survival, food and shelter, then one can make a good even happy life at any level of income. There may even be a feeling of relief to be forced to switch from managing and warehousing things to a more Spartan life but one that is richer intellectually and spiritually. The best things in life remain free. Poverty of the wallet is nothing compared to the poverty of spirit that all socialist governments cause long before they run out of “other people’s money”.

Precisely. The spirit of poverty was the center of Christian life for untold generations. Honored in the breach more than in the practice, it was still honored. Not until the Reformation and the beginnings of belief in the individual as the summum bonum did poverty begin to lose its appeal. Poverty became more overtly a sign of failure, a moral lack, Job’s just desserts.

Beginnings are always full of hope and idealism, but they soon run aground on the reality of quotidian existence. Martin Luther’s ideas were no different. He aimed to lance the boils of corruption enveloping the Church. Healing the wounds, he thought, would save the structure, but the perfect storm of rebellion he unleashed reached far past anything he could have dreamed. And so he bowed to history and the walls almost tumbled. The spirit of poverty went missing in the aftermath as people turned to material success as an outward indicator of virtue.

Puritans in the stocks

Various Protestant groups did their best to resurrect the spirit of poverty (witness the early Puritans in New England). But like all such grim utopias, the collective spirit of poverty imposed from the top down, inauthentic as it must needs be, led to sloth and starvation. As one Puritan leader said (having failed to notice that an earlier, similar experience in Virginia also crashed badly), industry only works within the individual. Efforts to impose it, even with the magic wand of corporal punishment or the shame of sitting in the stocks, will never work. Has never worked.

The current theories about fairness and redistribution are simply further discordant notes of the same old wrong song. It’s the socialists’ siren song with those undertones of envy and scarcity and futile zero-sum outcomes. Remember the Club of Rome? Some club. More like the stick of the sickly socialist redistribution scheme.

Laine’s notion that being relieved of having to care for too much stuff is spot on. A friend of mine, whom I’ve known since his lean years as a medical resident, is now wealthy and wise. He said after the loans were paid off it was great fun to buy “stuff”… but the game got old within a year or two.

Since history is neither cyclical nor linear (exactly), why don’t we call it recursive? In many ways, we are curving back past the fin de siècle of the 20th century to a time before World War II. Starting in — what? 2007 or so? — people had their stuff snatched away by grim Ms. Fortune, or, thinking les bons temps would roll forever, they indebted themselves into eternity with expensive cars, even more expensive houses, and more “stuff” than they can pack into these McMansions they don’t really own. A frantic, frenetic life.

Nor are modern Christians free of that materialist strain. Look at the mega churches and their mega congregations. Christ chose twelve, and that may be a manageable number for what he planned. Any bigger and you lose the intimacy of knowing and caring well for one another. Any smaller and the work load is too big for everyone.

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Two streams of thought here: there is a malign poverty; an institutional artifact set up by a well-meaning government that came to ‘help’ and stayed to destroy the safety nets people had built for themselves. With the full inertia of bureaucracy and crony capitalism pushing this despair onto a trapped citizenry, it’s hard to say if it can be overcome in our lifetimes. However, it darn well may crash of its own corrupt weight. We’ll have to see.

Tip jarOn the other hand, the benign poverty Laine observed, one born of individual necessity and outlook, can serve to bring a younger generation out of the preciously ironic and self-conscious distance they use as a shield against an authentic acceptance of limits. Limits on getting and having, just for starters. Pushing past the fin de siècle hysteria into a calmer place, they may be able to assess necessity and luxury, managing both wisely. At least more wisely than previous cohorts have done: the Me Generation and the You-Can-Have-It-All feminist mistake.

There are indeed certain things the spirit needs, and those things differ for each of us. I dearly love coffee, its smell, taste, and customs. If it disappeared I’d be hard put to replace it. During the Civil War people used chicory, but it wasn’t the same. Coffee is simply one of those gifts for some of us.

So is music. And conversation. And intellectual stimulation. Or maybe those last two are the same — or at least intersect?

But everything can be twisted. I knew a man whose work I edited. He was —is — intelligent, funny, successful by the world’s lights. But he was literally captive to music, imprisoned by it to the point he’d leave his patients sitting on the examining table so he could run down to buy the latest version of some symphony or other. Yeah, he eventually recovered his balance, but for a while it was torture for all concerned…

Here’s a parting thought: in my former marriage, we drove an old car. The more luxurious ones had been either wrecked or repossessed. My spouse was pushing for a rental for “business purposes”. This rental would be a sports car that would assign to him a success he hadn’t yet earned. I asked him if we couldn’t go on with things as they were until we’d saved enough money to buy a car. But he was adamant. A new car was a necessity.

In response to my query about whether it was better to have twenty thousand dollars in the bank and drive an old car or to, in essence, borrow this leased car thereby pretending to the world we owned something we didn’t have, and continue to live on the edge, he responded without hesitation. He chose Door Two.

And thus began, unbeknownst to me, my journey toward the Baron.

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Yesterday’s generous people hailed from near and far. More specifically:

Stateside: California, Georgia, Kentucky, Texas, and Virginia

Near Abroad: Canada

Far Abroad: Australia, British Virgin Islands, Slovakia, Sweden, and the UK

Thanks for this international endeavor, y’all. And have a ponderable Ash Wednesday…

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10 thoughts on “When Is Enough Too Much?

  1. bilbo —

    Gates of Vienna’s rules about comments require that they be civil, temperate, on-topic, and show decorum. Your comment violated the last of these rules. We keep a PG-13 blog, and exclude foul language, explicit descriptions, and epithets. This is why I deleted your comment.


    bilbo said…

    Laine said:
    “The best things in life remain free. Poverty of the wallet is nothing compared to the poverty of spirit that all socialist governments cause long before they run out of “other people’s money”.”

    its not just socialist governments.
    the capitalist system was/is built on credit, money that the banks created from nothing.
    it took only one bank to start doubting whether a debt could be repaid for the whole [repugnant] heap to collapse.
    that was not the fault of socialist governments or systems but one very capitalist one.

  2. Dignity in poverty is not the same as enforced deprivation and dispossession.

    In the U.K. it was most definitely the instrument of ‘laissez-faire’ capatalism from Thatcherism through Blairism to Cameron’s big society slave-labour corporativism that robbed out the wealth of the people.

    Attaching the label of socialism to what was termed “laissez-faire capatalism” is a bad prosecution, like wise a bad defence is attaching the label capatalism to what was fraud, greed and corruption.


  3. Poverty may not be valuable so much for the impoverishment itself but for the humility that it lends to our existence when we are faced with the evidence of our own helplessness to effect the grand designs and desires our imaginations can conjure. The idolatrous may still turn to the worship of the work of other men’s hands, whether in envy or supplication, once they have learned the weakness of their own efforts. But those that immerse themselves in the hard work of providing the necessities of life know something about the universe that can never be understood in any other way.

  4. bilbo said… “the capitalist system was/is built on credit, money that the banks created from nothing.”

    Banks don’t create money from nothing, governments do.

    Capitalism is built on Free Trade. Free Trade of Real goods and therefore Real money.

    Investment capitalism is also built on free trade and real money. As in someone with money investing that money into some other project, sometimes that entity with money being banks.

    Banks figured out they could take the money other people deposit and loan that money out as investments to other people. Banks using other people’s money to earn money. Pretty ingenious.

    But then enters government:

    The current system of capitalism based on fake money is a consequence of government printing fake money and placing that into the banking system. Fake money is money not earned through work or investment, but simply printed up just because the government can. In effect, government sanctioned forgery.

    So, don’t blame the banks. Blame the people we elect that dictate to the banks.

  5. Martin Luther … Healing the wounds, he thought, would save the structure, but the perfect storm of rebellion he unleashed reached far past anything he could have dreamed.

    Luther didn’t foment rebellion, but it did give the disparate political entities an excuse to foment rebellion.

    If we look closely at the political rebellions against the French Emperor, the followers of Luther took great pains to assist the Emperor in keeping the Empire intact in the face of Ottoman agression.

    Lutherans of the time made it clear to King Louis that their beef with the establish church was not a political rebellion against him. This culminated in the writing of the Book of Concorde for the express purpose of telling the King where they stood with him and with the established church.

    The Book of Concorde then became the basis of Protestant Theology in contrast with Roman Catholicism. Other confessions and theological divisions have diverged over time.

  6. Yeah, Laine’s comment was really good.

    The word “capitalism” is wrong, it implys we are only money-oriented. We are “free-marketeers” or “libertarians”, not capitalists. I am not a capitalist, because money really isn’t central in importance.

    Socialists and communists are thieves, thus the ultimate form of extreme “capitalism”. They try to make us the bad guy but we are the ones who believe thou shall not covet or steal.

    Wrong term, “capitalist”
    Right term “free-marketeer” or “libertarian”.

    Pro-agressives are the aggressively power-grabbing (PG) , grabbing money, land and leadership. They are the ultimate capitalists.

  7. A diversion onto another forking path:

    From a wonderful book one of our Canadian readers mentioned…a passage in which the author, recounting his pre WWII trek thru Hungary, Transylvania, et al, finds an inscription (in German) at some wayside tavern. He looks it up later to find it attributed, at least by some, to Martin Luther–

    Who does not love wine, women and song / Remains a fool his whole life long.

    It’s probably much better in the original.

    [If I take Luther’s aphorism at face value, then the Baron is the opposite of a fool. He’s already written about the wine and the song parts on GoV, but one of these days I’ll perhaps convince him to write a learned disquisition on watching women without getting caught or driving into a telephone pole. His skill is quite remarkable]


    My point about Luther’s aphorism is that Laine’s observation must include a kind of sloughing off of the burdens of Having in order to enjoy the freedom of Being.

    All groups have their basis in some kind of economic arrangement. I hadn’t meant to start an argument about socialism vs. individual endeavor. But I suppose that’s inevitable, given where we are.

    The freedom of ‘poverty’ is perhaps a perspective suitable mostly for the young and the old. Those in-between have to acquire much in order to support the very young and very old in their freedom from want.

    That said, it still remains for us to recover from our cultural drift to an extreme materialism. An addiction to ‘stuff’ remains one of the perennial problems of philosophy, no?
    Thank you for your comments…

    Btw, here is the book which mentions Luther’s saying:

    Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates

  8. Bilbo said: “it took only one bank to start doubting whether a debt could be repaid for the whole [repugnant] heap to collapse.
    that was not the fault of socialist governments or systems but one very capitalist one”. Not so. This stink bubble started with the very socialist notion by Democrats like Carter, Clinton and Barney Frank for a Dem controlled Congress that people without means should be able to own houses (the Community Reinvestment Act). The government legislated banks into loaning money to the uncreditworthy, disproportionately black. Since socialists have no idea how to make money, only redistribute other people’s money, they had the silly notion housing prices would continue to rise forever, and the homeowners with no money or jobs could pay back their loans from their increased equity. Of course, when this bubble predictably burst, taxpayers were on the hook to make good on all the losses politicians had caused to honest banks they forced into bad loans as well as the politicians’ financial cronies including some banks who bundled and passed these toxic loans on like the counterfeit bills they were. I agree with Lawrence about avoiding the term “capitalism” that was coined by Marx as a pejorative. The correct term is free market economy and when any government but more commonly socialist ones interfere with the free exchange of goods and services, when government mediocrities such as Carter hatch their stupid ideas, these are the socialist lice that plague the better though imperfect system. Every country that has followed free market principles has vastly improved its standard of living whereas most socialist countries are economic backwaters and always will be. Even the most advanced socialistic states in Europe are learning that socialism gives the illusion of working only as long as it is subsidized by unearned riches such as oil (Norway, Russia), private sector sheep willing to be shorn for the benefit of the unproductive or borrowed money. When the takers overwhelm the makers and the lenders notice, socialism crashes. The United States has a mixed economy that Obama is tilting evermore toward complete socialism, by giving the farm away to his union buddies and getting government to mismanage a further sixth of the American economy, health care.

  9. I think that there is something to be said for the idea that the realities of economics have a certain unalterable capitalist bent, and that this is to blame for much of why the world doesn’t work the way some people wish it would.

    Now, “capital” simply means wealth that has been invested according to some kind of plan rather than being hoarded or destroyed. That is, the wealth is being put to a distinct, considered use (usually in the making of more wealth).

    “Capitalism” is the economic theory that wealth should be used to generate more wealth rather than being simply hoarded or destroyed. Or, if we want to be more precise, it is the theory that only capital really matters since other “wealth” is not being used in any way (or has been destroyed and cannot be used any longer), and thus has effectively zero utility, which means that it ceases to be wealth.

    Some examples are in order. When you eat nutritious food, you aren’t simply destroying nor simply storing the wealth value of the food, but are transforming the potential of the food to be used in various ways to a different kind of wealth, increased bodily health and well-being. If you were to eat gold coins, you would simply be storing wealth. If you were to eat the paintings of old masters, you would just be destroying the wealth they represent.

    Now, we can say that a free society should permit people to use wealth they own as they wish, but that is not to say that all uses are economic. Hoarding wealth without using it may be less uneconomic than destroying it without any gain to off-set the lost value, but it is still not generally contributing to positive economic activity.

    Socialists often assume that the world is a zero-sum game, that every good enjoyed by anyone is necessarily the result of someone else not enjoying it, and that therefore simply depriving one person of the enjoyment of a good necessarily benefits someone else who then will be able to enjoy it. Socialists are not the only people that make this assumption, but at the current time most people who do eventually slide towards socialism.

    It is the fondest wish of a certain kind of person to believe that injuring others is automatically rewarded by the universe. And the capitalist bias of reality with regards to economics persistently ruins this wish. Those who always just clamor to have less of the pie given to others are always shocked and horrified to discover that, even after depriving everyone else of pie, their own share has not correspondingly increased. They’re always hunting for the pie-stealing ninjas that took the missing pie.

    But the truth is that it is the laws of economics, in all there capitalist bias, which have dictated that there will simply not be very much pie if you don’t properly reward those who contribute to making it.

    Chiu Chun-Ling.

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