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Some of her Catholic biographers have denied that she ever said it and others have spun like a top trying to interpret her words in a way that would make them not mean what she clearly did mean, but I find it to be entirely plausible that, sitting in the offices of the Kansas City Star, possibly not expecting to be quoted to closely, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day summed up the problem of poverty in America saying:

“Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

Many of us have grown up with the assumption that “the system” of our economy is either going to be capitalist, or communist, or socialist, and since we have been trained from our youth to assume that communism and socialism are just plain evil, we default to Capitalism as being the only thing any decent person would want. 

We have heard our crazy uncle at Thanksgiving and sometimes a local priest or pastor, and certainly right-wing politicians saying “that’s socialist” as a summary condemnation of any idea intended to help the poor, and, without evidence, we are supposed to ipso facto reject anything even libeled as being socialist.

Behind every wagging finger of someone accusing, “that’s socialist” there almost always stands someone who would not know a socialist if one stood up in their soup. And if you asked them to explain the difference between socialism and capitalism, if they responded at all, what you would get would be a word salad that might make Dr. Oz’s latest weight loss gimmick actually make sense.

I am fond of the observation made by the Buddhist philosopher, Alan Watts, who said, very flatly, “money doesn’t exist'. Money is a concept, a measurement. We assign a monetary value to a house or a gallon of milk, and we have symbols for exchanging assets, but it is just a measurement. You would not have a carpenter walking off from a building site saying, “We can’t work anymore today because we have run out of inches". You can run out of lumber, or bricks, or cement, but we just use inches to measure assets. Money doesn’t exist. We just use it to measure assets.

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When we say that we do not have enough money to pay for universal healthcare or to make colleges tuition free, that is just allowing your mind to get trapped inside that filthy, rotten, system that Dorothy Day talked about. We don’t pay tuition to send our kids to public school. We accept that grades K through 12 are funded through property taxes and that we want every kid in the country to have basic literacy and math skills. This simply requires a different perspective.

The problem is that now we are realizing that a more complicated world is calling for more education to be able to do what we do. So maybe public schools should be K through grade 16. That’s not really a big change, is it? We need a more trained society whether we are talking about trades of construction or plumbing or nursing or software creation.

The media, in their usual hysteria, has reacted to the promise to forgive a little bit of student debt as shifting their debt from the ivy league educated lawyer to the UPS driver as if even the pizza delivery person doesn’t want to encounter an educated medical staff when they go to the hospital or a well-designed cell phone when they upgrade to whatever Apple is going to make it absolutely necessary for us to buy next.

Money is only a way of measuring assets but if you buy into the system too deeply, you start to act like money is real and forget what really needs to take place to distribute housing to people who need shelter, food to people who need to eat, education to people who need skills, and transportation for everyone.

One of the most commonly banned books in the United States is Steinbeck’s classic novel, the Grapes of Wrath. The reason that it gets banned is because it so articulately questions how crazy an unbridled capitalism can be. In chapter 25, there is this passage:

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying …. because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot…. and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

The grapes of wrath Steinbeck references is the deep awareness that there is something seriously wrong with a system that can produce enough food to feed everyone but allows so much of it to go to rot because the poor, who are starving, cannot pay for the food. This is what really lies behind the first great potato famine in Ireland. It wasn’t that Ireland had run out of food. Ireland was shipping corn and wheat and fruits to England and Europe while a million Irish people died of starvation.

England had claimed ownership of Irish land and enslaved former owners to work on the farms. They grew potatoes to feed the poor Irish workers and more portable and profitable crops were shipped abroad. There was plenty of food in Ireland, but the people who grew the food were not allowed to eat it. They had been taught to accept the filthy, rotten system, that assigned ownership of land to one class of people, and assigned starvation to the workers.

You may know that the blight that wiped out potato crops in the middle of the 19th century for a decade actually came back about 30 years later but when it did, the Irish workers were no longer willing to accept the filthy, rotten system and there were battles to reclaim Irish land and food from the English.

There are complicated issues with absentee ownership and other matters of accounting but it boils down to this, any system that demands imposing hunger and poverty in the presence of abundance is a sick system and it is ripe for change.

I cringe every time I hear Larry Summers’ name mentioned in the news being quoted as a leading economist. Summers was president of Harvard when I went there as a fellow in 2004 and he had just made some public remark about how women were no longer discriminated against in higher education, they just didn’t do as well as men because women were biologically ill-equipped to compete in science and math. Anyone who is dumb enough or prejudiced enough to say or believe such a thing should certainly not be given much of a hearing when it comes to the complexities of economics, but, for some reason, presidents and the news media always seem to tremble at his observations.

As we have all been made aware of rapid inflation in many crucial areas of consumer goods from gas to food, we have been treated to daily doses of crazy uncle explanations of inflation, from somehow it is all President Biden’s fault, as if Biden can actually make the price of tea in China go up, to blaming it on the pent up demand of people who didn’t get to shop much during the pandemic.

And the Fed having control of only one switch to manage the economy, which is interest rates, just keeps raising the interest rates, driving down the value of stocks across the board and devaluing everything we own while not doing much to stop inflation, in comes Larry Summers with the important sounding advice that we need higher unemployment for several years…. As if more jobs was bad for the economy and fewer jobs, less productivity, fewer products and services, is what this country needs. His prescription is that the country needs five years of 5% unemployment or a horrible, potato famine style one year of 10% unemployment to really stop inflation…. Which, Summers has to know, would also stop millions of now unemployed people from being able to buy enough potatoes to feed their kids.

Which leads me to conclude that Larry Summers is ill-equipped to make any public comment on the economy or anything else. We act like the only way to give a hungry kid an orange is if someone can make some profit when the orange goes from the grocers’ hand to the kid’s hand and that is just a filthy, rotten system. 

Everything isn’t about profit. Everything isn’t capitalism. The army is not a capitalist system. Public schools are not capitalist. Hospitals are capitalists even though they claim that they are non-profit. Our judicial system has all kinds of profit motives wrapped up in it while they claim to dispense equal justice under the law.

There are, of course, economists around who are not Larry Summers. I think one of the most reliable is Richard Wolff, you can find lots of his material on line and not a few of his talks on YouTube but I will link an article of his on this slide that recently appeared in the LA Progressive, in which he describes the suggestions of Summers as being nothing less than an invitation to class warfare, which, I honestly believe that it is.

The truth is that every economy is a blend of several different kinds of approaches to money. Capitalism isn’t sacred and money doesn’t actually exist. Private ownership of things like land and mineral resources is suspect at best. What we actually do own is our labor and yet the market is always trying to devalue the only thing that most of us have to give in trade for goods and expecting people to just accept the system.

Not to pick on a single industry but it is like restaurant owners who say that they can’t get anyone to work. It is not that they can’t get people to work, it is that they can’t get people to work for $3.25 an hour. And, yes, you heard that right. Restaurants in Missouri are required to pay tipped workers a minimum of $3.25 an hour assuming that they will make at least that much more in tips. So, you can’t get people to work for $6 an hour…. Try paying them $15 an hour. A system that expects your waitress to starve on the way to bringing you your endless bread sticks and soup is a system that is heavy with the grapes of wrath.

In the end, Mr. Summers, what really threatens capitalism is income disparity. When the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting more poor, as those who can afford to keep the economy going by spending money get fewer and fewer, as all of the monopoly money and property end up in the hands of one little fat kid in the neighborhood, and everyone else goes broke.

For capitalism to work, we have to value labor. If we compensate people for the labor at a living wage, then they fuel the economy by buying groceries, houses, cars, health care, and clothing and wouldn’t we be a truly evil empire if we did not want for everyone to be able to buy groceries, houses, cars, health care, and clothing?

You can’t just lop off 10% or even 5% of society to benefit those at the top…. Unless of course the first person to become unemployed, homeless, and hungry is Larry Summers. And that, Mr. Summers, is just my opinion but I would love to see you try to convince me otherwise. 

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