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Thursday, January 22, 2015

The wealth effect


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What is the effect of wealth on happiness and living the abundant life?

Wealth can corrode one's spirit and morality.

A recent study suggests that wealth makes a person more dishonest and selfish (cf. Michael Lewis, "What wealth does to your soul," The New Republic, January 2, 2015). This how University of California Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner explained the result:

If I have $100,000 in my bank account, winning $50 alters my personal wealth in trivial fashion. It just isn't that big of a deal. If I have $84 in my bank account, winning $50 not only changes my personal wealth significantly, it matters in terms of the quality of my life — the extra $50 changes what bill I might be able to pay, what I might put in my refrigerator at the end of the month, the kind of date I would go out on, or whether or not I could buy a beer for a friend. The value of winning $50 is greater for the poor, and, by implication, the incentive for lying in our study greater. Yet it was our wealthy participants who were far more likely to lie for the chance of winning fifty bucks.

Wealth can erode communal trust and civic participation.

Another study shows that wealth makes Americans more likely to vote and to trust the government (Jana Kasperkevic, "Poor Americans are less likely to vote and more likely to distrust government, study shows, " The Guardian, January 9, 2015). Those conclusions make intuitive sense. People who vote are logically more likely to trust a government that they helped to elect or that is part of a political system in which they are personally invested. Conversely, one might reasonably expect governments to be most responsive to those citizens who are most engaged with the political process, i.e., voters and campaign contributors.

Greater wealth and income, beyond a certain level, do assure greater happiness or more abundant living.

Previous Ethical Musings posts have noted that beyond a certain income level, increasing one's income does not proportionately increase happiness. In other words, earning more money to increase one's wealth (or becoming wealthy in what is known as the "old-fashioned way" by inheriting it) is no guarantee of happiness or an abundant life, especially as one's annual income moves above $80,000.

The world's great religious traditions are correct to insist that wealth is at best a tool and never a goal to be sought for its own sake.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Seeking God's will


How can we discern God's will for our lives? Why do some people (e.g., violent religious extremists) go so wrong in their efforts to discern God's will? I address those questions in my most recent sermon, available here.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Mormons excommunicate dissidents


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons, is in the process of excommunicating two high profile dissidents. One of these dissidents is Kate Kelly from the group, Ordain Women, which is an interest group within the Mormon Church that supports the ordination of women. The other dissident is John Dehlin, a blogger prominent among Mormons for his support of women's ordination and same-sex marriage. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints opposes both the ordination of women and same-sex marriage.

One the one hand, boundaries are essential for group identity. In the Episcopal Church, as remains true in the Church of England, confirmation was required to receive Holy Communion. That policy shifted to welcome all of the baptized to Holy Communion. Supporters rightly argued that refusing Holy Communion to the Baptized made no sense because in Holy Baptism an individual becomes a full member of the body of Christ.

I'm opposed to current moves to welcome anyone, regardless of baptism, to Holy Communion. That move eliminates the last boundary defining who is and who is not a member of the Church.

One the other hand, I strongly support both the ordination of women and same-sex marriage, views with which Ethical Musings' have repeatedly seen affirmed in this blog. However, protesters should expect to pay a price. Protest without price is akin to cheap grace, i.e., almost worthless. I first learned this lesson when in high school when I wanted to join an anti-Vietnam war protest in lieu of attending a social studies class. When several of us queried the teacher, she replied that protesters unwilling to pay a price for their actions could not change the world. The US and India would both be very different countries today if thousands of people in both had not been willing to pay the price of protest. When people protest injustice, then the arc of history bends inexorably in support of their protest and reactionary defense of injustice will eventually prove futile.

Both of the Mormon dissidents, Kate Kelly and John Dehlin, have stood fast, not abandoning their views in the face of Mormon threats of excommunication. Change will come to the Mormons. May the examples of Kelly and Dehlin on this weekend before the annual commemoration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspire us to similarly stand for justice, regardless of personal cost.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Keystone XL pipeline debate


The Keystone XL pipeline debate seems to me to be much ado about nothing (or at least very little).

On the one hand, the major environmental issue is that extracting oil from the Arctic tar sands has severe adverse environmental consequences because of the release of harmful gases into the atmosphere. Not building the pipeline will not stop development of the tar sands. The pipeline question is really one of the safest, most environmentally responsible means of transporting what the oil. US citizens can protest, but banning the extraction is really a Canadian issue.

At the right price, the oil is worth extracting. Wells for extracting oil from tar sands usually have a productive life of 30-40 years, during which oil producers expect oil's price to fluctuate considerably. If US consumers dramatically reduced their oil consumption (e.g., reduce miles drive per year to 5,000 per person and only buy vehicles that have an estimated miles per gallon in excess of 40), global demand for petroleum products might drop substantially. Then oil companies would have far less of an incentive (perhaps no incentive!) to develop costly sources of oil, such as the Artic tar sands. Changes in US lifestyles might ripple around the world, given both the US's influence on many other cultures and the profitability of selling gas efficient vehicles in multiple markets.

On the other hand, the major economic issue related to the Keystone XL pipeline appears to be creation of a few thousand short-term jobs, mostly for construction workers (Glen Kessler, "Will Keystone XL pipeline create 42,000 ‘new’ jobs?" Washington Post, January 6, 2015). This project is too small to be a lasting catalyst for economic revival. The project's effects are likely to be similar to those of the Alaskan pipeline, which provided a similar, short-term economic boost to the Alaskan economy but did not have significant long-term consequences for the state (NB: I'm discussing the pipeline and not the exploitation of Arctic oil fields!).

Consequently, I found Ryan Lizza's suggestion in The New Yorker that the Keystone XL pipeline represented an opportunity for Obama to make a deal with the Republican controlled Congress Intriguing. Lizza suggested that a deal might allow the Republicans to claim an economic victory in terms of job creation and Obama to claim an environmental victory by trading the pipeline for Congress approving a much more significant environmental issue such as EPA guidelines for carbon emissions. His article is worth reading ("The Keystone XL Test: Can Obama Make a Deal?" The New Yorker, January 9, 2015) and an idea Obama and our Senators and Representatives in DC should support.