Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Everything I Know about Theology and Economics I Learned from "Cracked"


We live in a world where the most insightful and mature politicital commentary is in Cracked

Cracked was a humor magazine that premiered in the 1970's.  It was a kind of a Mad Magazine for 14-year-old boys - which is what Mad Magazine was.  But now Cracked seems to exist as a web site that publishes some very funny and perceptive social commentary - sort of like The Ink Desk for a secular audience with a hefty dose of vulgarity.

So be warned that vulgarity abounds, but if you can read between the language, Five Ways to Spot a B.S. Political Story in Under Ten Seconds is a very incisive look at the pathetic shortcomings of political journalism in the U.S.

The author of this piece, David Wong, writes a similarly funny article entitled How The Karate Kid Ruined the Modern World.  This piece deals with the fact that doing things well requires much more work than we ever imagine - which Wong calls "Effort Shock", something akin to "Sticker Shock".  But that's not what interests me in Wong's article.  What interests me is that he's stumbled on to something.  He writes ...

I really think Effort Shock has been one of the major drivers of world events. Think about the whole economic collapse and the bad credit bubble. You can imagine millions of working types saying, "All right, I have NO free time. I work every day, all day. I come home and take care of the kids. We live in a tiny house, with two [run down] cars. And we are still deeper in debt every single month." So they borrow and buy on credit because they have this unspoken assumption that, dammit, the universe will surely right itself at some point and the amount of money we should have been making all along (according to our level of effort) will come raining down.

Now, it is quite true that people think that effort alone should be productive, and that any expenditure of effort entitles a person to inflated success.  My friend Timothy Jones writes, "Watch American Idol auditions and see that confirmed in spades. The ones I feel bad for are those who've taken voice lessons for years and simply don't know that they're awful and always will be. 'But I want this SO MUUUUUUCH!!!!'"

Which is to say that Effort Shock is real and says a lot about our own Sloth and Greed, both of which were certainly factors in the housing bubble. 

But the illustration David Wong makes is quite common.  There are many families with two working parents, each putting in considerably more than 40 hours a week, each on the brink of exhaustion, with the family as a whole getting not a positive result, but a negative result - the family falling deeper into a debt that can never be repaid - a debt with usurious interest rates, which will never be erased short of bankruptcy because the original loans (a mortgage on an overvalued house, credit card purchases) are unproductive; the loans are unproductive, no matter how productive the borrowers may struggle to be.

This is something even more dehumanizing than wage slavery.  Wages at least should be something positive, the fruits of productivity.  But when we're paid (in effect) with debits and not credits, things can only get worse.

This is all really profoundly theological.

All natural effort is pointless if the supernatural element is not present.  You can break your back as a farmer, but if the gift of growth is not in the soil, your efforts will be unavailing.  You can bust your buns learning to play a musical instrument, but if the God-given gift of talent is not there to begin with, your efforts won't get you very far. 

So it's a tad cynical to see productivity and the fruits of labor as being forever out of our reach as we furiously spin that consuming hamster wheel of sterility.  It is more right to say, "Effort-and-Productivity should go hand in hand, like Faith-and-Works or Sex-and-Babies - and when they don't, when we are robbed of the fruits of our labors, either through usury or our own lack of talent or the lack of responsiveness of the soil we're cultivating, then something is wrong."

In other words, Wong is Right, but Wong is Wrong. 

It takes more work to bear fruit than we typically expect, but there is a natural connection between Effort and Result, which we see severed all around us, from contraception to usury to laziness. 

Faith without works is dead, and works without anything to show for it is the hallmark of the modern age.

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