Thursday, February 23, 2012
Charity or justice?
Bishop George Packard, in a posting at the Daily Episcopalian (Church on the path to irrelevance) argues that the Church tends to focus on the small questions rather than the big questions. With respect to the Occupy Wall Street, Bishop Packard suggests that Christians and the Church prefer charity to justice.
Most people and organizations prefer small questions to large ones. For reasons I will not pretend to have identified, my observation for decades has been that people and organizations generally prefer small questions to large ones. In fact, I long ago discovered that if I included a few small issues about which I cared little alongside the large issues that was important to me, I usually could get people to take satisfactory action on the large issue, allowing them to expend their time and energy on the relatively minor details. That also gave people more a sense of ownership than dealing with the large issue. I have no reason to expect that the Church, whether Trinity Wall Street parish or the national denomination, will behave differently.
Therefore, a key leadership task is vision. Good leaders learn to abandon the little picture and focus on the big one. Sadly, the Church (and many nations, for that matter) suffers from a deficit of good, visionary leadership. Similarly, once great business enterprises lose their dominant positions when they replace a visionary leader with one who lacks strategic vision (or the right strategic vision).
Both charity and justice are essential. Bishop Packard is right: charity is more popular. We’d rather feed a person today than tackle the big question of how to fix the economic system so that the person is gainfully and satisfactorily employed tomorrow, able to feed her/himself.
Good data provides a clear picture of the problem. The Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) has helpfully called our attention to the disparity between rich and poor. OWS has been far less helpful in understanding the actual nature of the problem. Tax laws are unfair and high earners overpaid. However, the plight of the poor is even worse:
The real income problem in this country is not a question of who is rich, but rather of who is poor. Among the bottom fifth of income earners, many people, especially men, stay there their whole lives. Low education and unwed motherhood only exacerbate poverty, which is particularly acute among racial minorities. Brookings Institution economist Scott Winship has argued that two-thirds of black children in America experience a level of poverty that only 6 percent of white children will ever see, calling it a “national tragedy.” (James Q. Wilson, “Angry About Inequality? Don’t Blame the Rich,” Washington Post, January 26, 2012)
Ending poverty requires:
· Putting fewer people in prison, e.g., through better policing and decriminalizing narcotics and marijuana (cf. Ethical Musings Musing about prison)
· Fixing the schools so that children learn, i.e., not imposing frequent standardized tests that create administrative burdens and pedagogical distractions but focusing on teaching civic values and basic skills, keeping all children in school until age 18 or graduation from high school (cf. Ethical Musings Improving Schools and Teaching and accountability)
· Creating incentives to keep families intact (put aside the shibboleth that a family requires a mother and father and accept the reality that families come in lots of patterns and sizes but all deserve help)
· Ensuring that every child has the basics (healthcare, food, shelter, education, a loving parent who has ample time to spend with the child)
· Other steps that you may suggest
One interesting idea has recently gained traction: chartering corporations so that their purpose is explicitly earning profits and creating positive social benefits (Angus Loten, “With New Law, Profits Take a Back Seat,” Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2012).
Business ethicists and others have lacked a consensus, even among themselves, on whether corporations can legitimately divert funds from profits and profit making to activities that benefit the community. In a corporation, the executives and board of directors have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize shareholders’ value. Milton Friedman is one of the best-known advocates of the idea that corporations benefit their community the most when they maximize profits. Conversely, most corporations justify supporting some charitable activities through donations of monies or other resources by arguing that this improves the firm’s image in the community, enhances goodwill, etc. The new law goes even further, actually authorizing corporations to engage in activities that will benefit the community and may not benefit the firm.
Creating the option of chartering such corporations is justice in action. However, chartering such a corporation and then actualizing its potential for community good and profit making represents “charity” in action. In other words, a healthy society needs both charity and action, people who think strategically and people who think tactically, people who grapple with the big questions and those who focus on the small questions.
Instead of prioritizing one over the other, any organization – the Church, a business, the schools, etc. – needs to find people with the right focus for the right level of leadership. Sadly, that requirement is met less often than one might hope.