Catholicism: Day 13 – The Christian Perspective on Wealth and Poverty

The Stoics rejected the pursuit of wealth because wealth was something that was outside of your control and that if you attained it, you will only want more wealth.

They knew how seductive wealth could be, and how it could make you miserable both when you did not attain in and when you attained it and desired more.

Christianity is also suspicious of wealth. Consider this passage from James, Chapter 5, which was one of the readings for the Mass I attended the other day.

Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries.
Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten,
your gold and silver have corroded,
and that corrosion will be a testimony against you;
it will devour your flesh like a fire.
You have stored up treasure for the last days.
Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud;
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.
You have condemned;
you have murdered the righteous one;
he offers you no resistance.

The rich cannot take their wealth with them when they die. Not only can they not take it with them, it is a sign of their sinfulness that they still have wealth when they die.

The passage then goes out to admonish the wealthy for withholding wages from their workers who harvest their fields. God has heard the cries and laments of the workers and feels for them. He then accuses the wealthy of “murdering the righteous one.”

In his homily, the priest pointed out how counter-cultural this is today. Wealth and prestige are righteous and worthy pursuits in American culture.

It is also incredibly seductive. During my Stoicism month, I read an article about Goldman Sachs and I immediately wanted to work there, especially after I read that the average salary is $350k.

Can you be wealthy and still be a good person?

Though the Bible has some harsh things to say about the wealthy, it doesn’t condemn wealth per se.

If you can avoid letting your wealth corrupt you and put it to good purposes, the Church would not have a problem with it.

But that’s incredibly difficult to do.

This NYT article discusses how being higher up on the socioeconomic ladder makes you less empathetic towards others.

A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain. In 2008, social psychologists from the University of Amsterdam and the University of California, Berkeley, studied pairs of strangers telling one another about difficulties they had been through, like a divorce or death of a loved one. The researchers found that the differential expressed itself in the playing down of suffering. The more powerful were less compassionate toward the hardships described by the less powerful.

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at Berkeley, and Michael W. Kraus, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have done much of the research on social power and the attention deficit.

Mr. Keltner suggests that, in general, we focus the most on those we value most. While the wealthy can hire help, those with few material assets are more likely to value their social assets: like the neighbor who will keep an eye on your child from the time she gets home from school until the time you get home from work. The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful — than the rich are, because they have to be.

As you grow richer, the number of people you can relate to diminishes. You don’t have the same problems and pains as people worse off than you. As a result, your empathy muscles weaken.

I forget where I read this, but many aspiring investment bankers think they will just work as a banker for a few years, save up a bunch of money, and then retire to pursue what they really want.

It seems like a sensible strategy. After 5 years or so, you could probably make enough to live comfortably for the rest of you life.

But you would have to be incredibly independent to not be permanently affected by the money culture.

Kevin Roose, a New York Magazine, journalist, shadowed a group of eight young bankers in their first years of banking.

He revealed some important insights in this interview about his book:

BI: Have any of the kids you followed who left Wall Street shed the habits that they picked up there, or are they forever changed?

KR: I think a lot of the day-to-day habits are sheddable, especially if you get out within two years. But even the bankers who left finance told me that working on Wall Street had changed the way they thought about the world. It’s a very strong belief system. I don’t know if you can ever really leave it behind.

BI: Did you ever get mad or frustrated at your subjects? And if so, why?

KR: Once, I remember prodding a guy who was feeling sorry for himself. This guy was making something like $200,000 a year as a 24-year-old in private equity and he still wasn’t happy, and he was pouring out his woes to me, and I kind of stopped him short. Like, do you know how lucky you are compared to the rest of the world? Most of the time, though, the bankers I followed had a good perspective on the relative size of their problems.

BI: Do you know any adults who made it through Wall Street well adjusted? How do you think they did it?

KR: I think it has to do with avoiding social isolation. If everyone you interact with all day is a millionaire or billionaire and works in finance, it warps your perspective. The people I know who work in finance and are the best-adjusted are the people who have diverse groups of friends — you know, they play pick-up basketball with cops, or they volunteer at a school one day a week. Their lives are bigger than just banking.

A few observations I pulled from the above answers:

1)   Working on Wall Street for a few years can permanently change you, for better or worse (I’m guessing worse)

2)   Making $200k a year won’t make you happy, even if you acknowledge your problems as first world problems

3)   An effective “vaccine” against Wall Street money culture is to surround yourself with diverse groups of friends, those who are lower on the socioeconomic ladder than you

It’s funny we feel the need to reconfirm the morally hazardous effects of wealth on our psyche.  The Stoics and Christians discovered this thousands of years ago.

Blessed are the poor in spirit

When I was teaching in Egypt, my friends and I took a trip to Lebanon. A few us were invited to visit a Palestinian refugee camp in Tripoli.

An acquaintance of ours was interviewing a young Lebanese Palestinian man who lived in the camp and hosted a radio show that focuses on the injustices the Palestinians face in Lebanon.

After the interview, he kindly invited us to have lunch at his home.

His mother served us a wonderful meal of chicken, couscous, and bread that we devoured.

This was certainly not a low-cost meal for her family but she openly shared what she had with us. We were complete strangers and yet she was still very generous.

Compare this to your last happy hour you went to with your friends and your experience trying to split up the check at the end.

This difference is behavior and sentiment is what Jesus was referring to when he said, “Blessed are the poor in the spirit.”

It’s not just the 1%

It’s in vogue to accuse wealthy investment bankers of decadence and moral corruption, but the real danger is failing to acknowledge your own wealth and prestige.

It’s very easy to think “oh well I only make $50k a year so I’m not rich,” but if you take a few minutes to reflect on all the less fortunate people you ignore, you’ll realize how often you suffer from the same empathy gaps as the super rich.

How many times have you just ignored the homeless man asking for change on the metro?

How often do you think that you think you deserve your more money for the work you’re doing?

How often do you get frustrated with “first world problems,” like when you sit down in your favorite coffee shop and the WiFi isn’t working?

It’s very uncomfortable to think about how flawed we are, which is why we don’t do it.

Before you attack the 1%, take a few minutes to reflect on how you could be more compassionate to those less fortunate than yourself.