employers laborers and just wages

Employers, Laborers, and Just Wages

September 10, 2015

The concept of the just wage continues to vex economic liberals, though there can be no doubt that it is an integral element of the Catholic Church’s social magisterium—just as integral as, say, subsidiarity and solidarity. However, even some Catholics who defend the Church’s teaching on the just wage sometimes confuse the concept as the upper limit of what a worker ought to be paid rather than seeing it as the base floor. Here is what Pope Leo XIII teaches in Rerum Novarum:

“There is a dictate of nature more ancient and more imperious than any bargain between man and man, that the remuneration must be sufficient to support the wage-earner in reasonable and frugal comfort. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accepts harder conditions, because an employer or contractor will give him no better, he is the victim of fraud and injustice.”

Economic liberals, such as those associated with the Acton Institute, or more radical organizations like the libertarian Cato Institute, have little-to-no tolerance for the just wage. By their lights, the just wage—much like crudely drawn minimum wages—fails to pay homage so the market process, as if that process itself is neutral and not subject to manipulation by those with the means to do so. Moreover, the free-market camp claims that it is impossible to establish a just wage in the abstract. This is a non-argument really since neither Leo XIII nor any of his successors have ever attempted to devise a “one size fits all” teaching on the just wage. As John Medaille discusses in his books and articles, the just wage is a standard of measurement, not a fixed number that holds static across time. And because the just wage is, in essence, a minimum wage, the concept does not restrict laborers from gaining further fruits through innovation, industriousness, or intellectual acumen.

Photo by Matthew G. Bisanz

In A Manual of Catholic Action: Its Nature and Requirements (M.H. Gill and Son 1933) pg. 92, the matter receives more detailed attention:

“Authoritative Catholic teaching does not go beyond the minimum (lowest) wage, and does not declare what would be the completely just compensation. It admits that the worker may often receive more than the minimum, but does not attempt to define precisely this larger justice with regard to any class of wage-earners. And wisely so; for, owing to the many distinct features of production and distribution, the matter is exceedingly difficult and complicated. Different interests have to be considered. From the side of the employer: energy expended, risk undertaken, and a return on his capital; from the side of the laborer: needs, toil, productivity, sacrifices and skill; from that of the consumer: fair prices. In any just system of compensation, all these elements have to be considered. If all the factors concerning capital and labor were agreed on, the problem of the consumer or buyer would still remain.”

Photo by Mike Mozart of JeepersMedia

Two things stand out about this passage. First, as already noted, the Church’s social magisterium does not attempt to authoritatively set wages across the board, nor propose specific numerical floors or limits which can be mechanically applied across industries, geographic locales, or historical periods. A doctor’s earnings should outpace the auto mechanic’s wages, just as the mechanic’s wages should outpace those of a low-skilled laborer working at a fast-food restaurant. There is nothing wrong with this. What is wrong, however, is when the fast-food worker cannot earn enough to live on, let alone provide minimal support to his family. An employee at Walmart or McDonald’s should not have to rely on transfer payments from the government in order to maintain what is barely a subsistence living, and any system which perpetuates such conditions cannot be considered just.

Second, contrary to the erroneous claims of the liberals, the Church’s social magisterium expressly contemplates a role for the market in setting wages above the just minimum. Employer, laborer, and consumer interests all have roles to play. These roles remain subject to the dictates of justice and the market itself is subservient to the common good. It would behoove economic liberals who claim to be faithful sons and daughters of the Catholic Church to take her teaching on wages into account when putting forth their proposals to better society. Economics, or what was once called political economy, will never ascend the throne to become queen of the sciences. The sooner that truth is internalized, the better off we will all be.

Gabriel Sanchez

Gabriel S. Sanchez is an attorney and independent researcher living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His writings include a comprehensive critical-treatise on international aviation law for Cambridge University Press, commentary on Michigan society and politics for The Bridge magazine, along with contributions to Catholic publications such as The Angelus, The Remnant, Ethikia Politika, and Crisis. Sanchez also maintains a blog, Opus Publicum, and is cofounder and contributor to The Josias.

This article previously appeared at Opus Publicum.

a social capitalist looks at american

A Social Capitalist looks at American Inequality: Robert Putnam’s Our Kids

August 25, 2015

Harvard professor Robert Putnam didn’t create the term “social capital,” but through his influential writings over the past couple of decades he has become the most well-known proponent of how members of society bloom or wilt in relation to their involvement (or lack thereof) in voluntary associations, civic participation, and other non-work, non-family, organizations. The networks that communities create allow for local governance, shared values, and ability to define and work toward common aspirations.

Putnam’s first major work, Making Democracy Work (1994), looked at data from the Italian government’s move to regionalize some functions of administration beginning in the 1970s. Putnam and his co-author made the case that districts which had longer standing traditions of membership in associations – such as fraternal, civic, religious, and recreational – were performing more effectively because citizens had already created stronger local bonds that led to more trust and cooperation in governmental affairs.

Photo by Thomastheo

Putnam expanded on this research with what became his clarion call in 2000 – Bowling Alone. Putnam used the example of the decline of membership in bowling clubs in America beginning in the later 1960s, and then in free-fall in the 1970s, as a metaphor for the overall decline in civic participation and common social underpinnings in the U.S. that had previously kept communities more tightly-knit. In addition to lower participation in bowling leagues, Putnam weaved an impressive, albeit it sad, wealth of data to show that Americans were also attending church less and less, not joining fraternal organizations, spending less time with neighbors, and that families were not eating as many communal meals. With Americans less connected to family, neighbors, or other members of their community, Putnam’s research showed that the resulting social isolation began to reflect a less empathetic society.

Bowling Alone quickly became a rallying cry for various community activists to consider new ideas to re-invent or save American social capital and civic engagement. Putnam followed up with a sequel of sorts called Better Together which gave a more hopeful note about subsequent attempts around the country to rebuild community. More recently, Putnam returned to the topic of religion in American Grace which analyzed the ability of faith groups to galvanize and sustain communities, but also their role in exclusivity within the public square as opposed to inclusiveness. With Our Kids, Putnam sounds a warning not simply about rising income inequality in American society but, perhaps more troubling, a widening of the gap in opportunities to move up the economic ladder. Putnam’s method in Our Kids is to contrast the prospects and social supports of himself and his fellow members of the 1959 graduating class of the high school in the small-town Middle-America hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, with the young adults of the same town today.

Since the United States took shape without a pre-existing social order, and seemed to offer a limitless frontier with cheap land and a frequently booming economy with the continual arrival of bright, and brash newcomers, Americans have generally believed that if you work hard, play by the rules, and get the education or training you need, success is achievable – perhaps inevitable – no matter someone’s background. Although the 20th century dawned with high levels of income inequality, as well as gaping chasms of social inequality for women and racial and religious minorities, in the period from about 1910 to around 1970 incomes became about as equalized as they ever have in the United States. Some of the major events of that era, such as two world wars and a major economic depression, contributed to the levelling of society psychologically as well as economically. (Our Kids, p. 33) Putnam notes, however, referencing the work of Douglas Massey, that in the period from 1945-1975 “under structural arrangements implemented during the New Deal, poverty rates steadily fell, median incomes consistently rose, and inequality progressively dropped, as a rising economic tide lifted all boats.”

“What after bowling alone?”, by Erik Pevernagie, Oil on canvas

Most interesting about this period is that the top 20% of Americans by income increased their earnings approximately 2 ½ percent per year, but the bottom 20% of citizens raised their salaries by about 3 percent per year. Putnam and his classmates in Ohio were part of this seemingly egalitarian era, and his stories and interviews with his fellow students show a marked community spirit and social solidarity summed up by the fact that when townspeople referred to “our kids” in conversation they nearly always meant the kids who resided in town, not their own sons and daughters. (p. 3) Putnam reports that on balance the members of his high school class went on to better livelihoods than their parents experienced (and many of whom had themselves never attended college, or perhaps even finished high school).

Putnam uses his hometown as a bellwether because Port Clinton happens to be representative of overall American demographics of that era, as well as of today. Like many American towns at the time, he came of age when class divisions economically and educationally were narrowing, neighborhoods had a fair socio-economic mix of families, and due to membership in social organizations like churches, sports leagues, and fraternal groups, there were relatively few barriers for interacting through friendship and marriage across class lines.

“Don”, one of Putnam’s classmates, was from a poor but close-knit family. His father worked the equivalent of two full-time jobs, while Don’s mother was a homemaker. The family lacked an automobile or TV at a time when 80% of American households had these goods. Don finished in the top quarter of the class of ’59 and also was the star quarterback of the school’s football team. Although his parents were unfamiliar with higher education, the minister of his church assisted him with an introduction to a college he later attended, and advised him about financial aid. Don graduated from college, and later went to seminary himself. He had a long career as a member of the clergy, married, and had a daughter.

Living only four blocks away from Don was another classmate “Frank”. Frank’s family was wealthy, but he was raised to downplay his social status, mixed with others in his neighborhood, and was required to work during summer vacations while attending high school.

Port Clinton had only two black students in its graduating class that year. While their families did experience occasional racism, and were of very modest means, “Jesse” and “Cheryl” both went on to college with local support and attained advanced degrees. Jesse even defeated a certain Bob Putnam to win the contest for president of the student council while attending the high school. Both of them went into educational careers.

Putnam sums up the experience for many of his fellow graduates by stating that they grew up in two-parent households, in houses that – however plain – were owned by the parents, and lived in neighborhoods in which most people knew each other by name. (p. 7) Port Clinton, like many other communities in the late 1950s and early 1960s offered good, steady jobs at factories, manufacturers, and (locally) mines. Many workers were protected by union benefits, which, in turn, allowed them to make contributions to economic development and the ability to eventually afford “big ticket” items like cars, housing, washing machines and so on that kept families secure. Putnam relates that the conversations he’s had with former classmates suggest that, while they now realize that their “material” conditions might have been lacking in some cases (“we were poor, but didn’t know it”), the intangibles of community engagement, economic security, stable families, intact neighborhoods, and civic and organizational attachments, leads Putnam to suggest that “they were rich, but didn’t know it.” (p. 9)

A good portion of Our Kids looks at how rising income inequality since about the early-to-mid 1970s to the current time has erased the gains of much of the 20th century. Now, in Port Clinton and many other communities, families are fragile, the children that the “Class of ‘59” had aren’t doing as well as their parents, civic engagement is low, and economically secure jobs are few and far between for many Americans. But that’s not the case for all Americans. The families that resemble Frank’s in Port Clinton (and elsewhere) have increasingly separated themselves by developing suburbs, and using the growth of the automotive highway system and a reliance on cars to retain good school districts, parks, privacy, and malls and shopping centers to put space between their kids and the growing ranks of the have-nots.

Port Clinton’s declining fortunes within about a single generation are stark. Putnam mentions that as “late as the 1970s, real wages locally were slightly above the national average…By 2012 the average worker in Ottawa County (Port Clinton is the county seat) had not had a raise for nearly half a century, and is now paid 16% less in inflation-adjusted dollars than his or her grandfather (or grandmother) in the early 1970s.” (p. 20) The loss in economic fortunes is an integral part of the decline in community down to the smallest and most critical of social units – the family. Putnam notes that between 1970 and 2010 in Ottawa County, single-parent households doubled (10% to 20%), divorce rates quintupled, unwed births went from less than 1 in 5 to nearly 2 in 5. In Port Clinton itself, in just a twelve-year span (1978-1990), unwed births went from 9% to about 40%. This fragility and rapid decline of the family is mirrored in the rate of child poverty going from a similar rate of less than 10% to nearly 40% by 2013 (p. 21).

Port Clinton is a bellwether statistically and culturally for trends in the larger American society. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank looked at one notable aspect of the gap of widening inequality. During the years of 1989-2013, the net worth of U.S. households headed by people with a college education had risen 47% but those headed by folks who had a high school degree or less had actually declined by 17% during those years. [1]

The appealing lakeshore area of Port Clinton is something of a microcosm of the growing class split. In the time since Putnam and some of his classmates have moved from town, it has developed into a place with attractive housing and neighborhoods. The child poverty rate in the Census tract that covers the lakeshore is approximately 1%. The Census tract that begins across the road has a rate of 51%.

It should be no surprise that people tend to associate with, form friendships among, and marry other people who are like them. As inequality grows, citizens are increasingly likely to live in neighborhoods, attend schools, have careers, and spend their free time in less mixed company than during the middle decades of the 20th century.

Photo by Mike Sharp

The affluence of the “baby boom” generation ushered in an era of individualism that questioned traditions and also brought attention to a variety of social movements. When Americans do marry today, then, there are fewer barriers to interreligious, interracial, and even same sex unions but there has been a lessening of marriage between different economic classes (p. 40). The implication of this clustering of citizens among class lines means that the network of neighbors, role models, and family that “our kids” come into contact with and learn from are increasingly from the same background.

These formal and informal connections can end up reinforcing the kind of opportunities – or the lack thereof – in important life choices such as career, education, and how one handles personal and family responsibilities. As the gap widens on the margins – growth in the super rich and a rise in who sits at the bottom – it may no longer be enough to expect to succeed from the traditional American mantra of “work hard, get ahead.”

The interviews the book contains with young adults around the country show that the biggest predictor of family dysfunction and poverty is related to class. We meet, for instance “Desmond” and “Elijah,” who are both African-American and from Atlanta. But that’s where their similarities appear to end. Desmond and his married parents lived in a mixed-racial middle-class neighborhood. We learn that his mother and father ferried him to music and sports practices, kept tabs on his grades at school, and made sure he went on to college. At the time we are introduced to Desmond he had begun an internship with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Elijah, meanwhile, had grown up amidst mostly uninvolved parents, and a revolving door of subsequent ne’er-do-well boyfriends of his mother. Lacking good role models and direction he did not do well at school, spent much of his time trying to care for younger siblings, and had been involved in the juvenile justice system for committing an arson. The interviewers make it clear that Elijah has tried to turn his life around and has been getting active in his church, but he currently has only a grocery job and admits that the violence he grew up around has made him “love beating up somebody and making they nose bleed and just hurting them.” (p. 108)

Photo by LeeG7144

In some academic and liberal circles, religious affiliation and church attendance has tended to be seen as comprised of folks who are from poor or less educated households, which might explain their solace in traditions and faiths that a secular society increasingly sees as backward. But while some might not see the benefits of being active in a religious group, this aspect of American society is also becoming stratified by class – and perhaps not in the way critics might think.

The reality is that middle-class and affluent Americans attend church more regularly than their less well-off brethren and sisters, not the other way around. Putnam suggests, as he frequently notes in Bowling Alone and later books, that church membership is an indicator of how well-socialized and engaged one is with their larger community. Citing research in social science field, he relates that religious involvement by youth – usually because involved parents bring them to a place of worship frequently – do better in school on average than their non-attending peers, and are much more likely to attend college later (p. 224). Youth who attend church also report better relationships with parents, tend to be involved in other non-curricular activities, and are less likely to be involved with risky behaviors (i.e. substance abuse, shoplifting, and corrective actions at school).

Looking just at white Americans (although blacks of all social classes generally have higher participation in a church than their fellow Caucasian citizens), during the time of the Evangelical Protestant boom of the 1970s and 80s, college-educated adults stayed relatively the same in terms of weekly attendance at a place of worship (from about 30% to 27%). Non-college adults, on the other hand, curtailed their weekly worship from a similar 30% – 32% down to only 20% – 22%. (p. 225) Whatever mainstream society’s attitudes are toward religion and the tenets that various faiths espouse, it is clear that income gaps are leading some Americans toward the intrinsic benefits church involvement appears to have while others are not benefiting from it – and the separation is growing.

Photo by LeeG7144

Putnam has had experience consulting with a number of recent Presidents (Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama) and other heads of state, but, interestingly, does not offer particularly strident political solutions or seek to shame upper-class Americans. Perhaps he prefers to let his research and analysis do the talking and for politicians to develop remedies based on his work. Maybe his humble Midwestern upbringing described throughout the book suggests modesty. But his last chapter, “What Is to Be Done?”(p. 247 – p. 261), is where he does make public policy suggestions, and where reviewers, therefore, may pick the most bones with him.

Putnam might not be comfortable on a soap box, but the widening gap in not just income but the lack of opportunity to move up the ladder greatly concerns him. He likens the situation to the debate on how to address climate change. He believes we must act now before the situation becomes graver. Putnam recommends making more early-childhood investments in poorer communities, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, protecting the funding of anti-poverty programs, better means of providing day care, funding programs that reduce criminal recidivism, and reducing incarceration for non-violent offenses along with more creativity in sentencing.

Putnam also looks at a variety of school reform strands that may show promise. Funding and expanding career and vocational programs could establish a base for non-college educated students and young adults to begin closing the income gap. Expanded access to community college is also discussed.

In his review of Our Kids in The Wall Street Journal, W. Bradford Wilcox, of the National Marriage Project at University of Virginia, agrees with much of Putnam’s analysis, but believes that he does not place enough emphasis on the fact that federal government policy cannot “substitute for homes with two devoted parents and communities replete with PTO moms and soccer dads.” [2] Wilcox’s argument is a familiar one advanced by social traditionalists that the government has encouraged dependency on programs that are instead better solved by lower levels of society like families and charitable groups.

Photo by LeeG7144

From a different perspective, Jason DeCarle, assessing the book in The New York Times, believes that Putnam might not be concerned enough that as we increasingly become a society of have-a-lots and have-nothings that our democratic institutions are at stake. DeCarle also suggests, as do some other liberal commentators, that perhaps Putnam waxes a little too nostalgic about the society of 1959 in which a number of Americans weren’t able to thrive outside the shadows, however well-adjusted the overall picture looked. [3]

Writing in the London paper The Guardian, Nona Willis Aronowitz also seems concerned that Putnam isn’t advocating for more structural changes in American society. She credits, as do some other commentators, Putnam’s colleague Jennifer Silva, who led many of the interviews contained in Our Kids. Silva also has an excellent book that preceded her collaboration with Putnam called Coming Up Short that profiled the challenges and struggles for working-class millennials in Lowell, Massachusetts and Richmond, Virginia. [4] There may be a feeling that Silva can better voice and provide more context on this issue than the 74-year-old Putnam. Aronowitz seems to miss Putnam’s greatest contribution to the social science literature regarding social capital by actually advocating for community-based solutions. [5]

I believe that Putnam hits the right notes by believing that there is a role for government to play in supplementing, if not replacing, the role that is now not being achieved by civil society and private charity alone. Conversely, social traditions, such as church membership and community engagement, are necessary, even vital, as the glue that keeps communities together. These cannot be replaced by individual action and autonomy. A combination of civic virtue and public investment through judicious allocation of tax dollars are needed to address the gaps that “our kids” – all of the kids – confront, so that they will all, one day, have the opportunities to experience the “American Dream”.

Kirk G. Morrison

capitalism and catholic social

Capitalism and the Catholic Social Tradition: Conversing with Father Robert Barron

July 17, 2015

“Back to Europe. A third model was added to the two models of the 19th century: socialism. Socialism took two main paths — the democratic and the totalitarian one. Democratic socialism became a healthy counterbalance to radically liberal positions in both existing models. It enriched and corrected them. It proved itself even when religious confessions took over… In many ways, democratic socialism stands and stood close to the Catholic social teachings. It in any case contributed a substantial amount to the education of social conscience.”

—Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Father Robert Barron’s piece this week for the National Catholic Register, “A Prophetic Pope and the Tradition of Catholic Social Teaching,” considers the many words offered by Pope Francis on the prevailing economic order, the destruction of life—moral and biological—and our duty to the poor.

Father Barron begins by acknowledging the concerns many supporters of capitalism are expressing since the general population started learning church teaching on these realities through the news media:

“…many supporters of the capitalist economy in the West might be forgiven for thinking that His Holiness has something against them. Again and again, Pope Francis excoriates an economy based on materialism and greed, and with prophetic urgency, he speaks out against a new colonialism that exploits the labor of those in poorer countries. With startling bluntness, he characterizes the dominant economic form in the developed world as ‘an economy that kills.’ Moreover, in a speech delivered in Bolivia, a country under the command of a socialist president, the Pope seemed, almost in a Marxist vein, to be calling on the poor to seize power from the wealthy and take command of their own lives. What do we make of this?”

Of course, we must accept and embrace the words of Pope Francis, and must, at the same time, as Father Barron submits, contextualize them so that they may be better “understood in the framework of Catholic social teaching.”

It is unfortunate that Father Barron accepts, without providing any analysis or critique, the idea that the Catholic social tradition rejects socialism absolutely while maintaining that what is needed is merely a refining of the capitalist system. In agreement with Robert Sirico and Michael Novak, Barron writes that Catholic Social Teaching, “clearly aligns itself against socialistic arrangements and clearly for the market economy.”

After highlighting the many advancements made, against the wishes of many capitalists, within our economic order—such as minimum wage, child labor laws, anti-trust provisions, worker unions—Barron touches on moral degradation vis-a-vis capitalism. “Won’t the drive for profit lead to the destruction of nature, unless people realize that the earth is a gift of a gracious God and meant to be enjoyed by all? This is precisely why the moral relativism and indifferentism that holds sway in many parts of the West,” and not necessarily capitalism itself, “—fostered by the breakdown of the family and the attenuating of religious practice—poses such a threat to the economy.” The existential threat to human life fails to make an appearance in Barron’s list of concerns related to capitalist social structures.

Barron reminds us in the end, “the Pope’s attention is not so much on the mechanisms of capitalism, but rather on the wickedness of those who are using the market economy in the wrong way, greedily making an idol of money and becoming indifferent to the needs of others.”

I have a few questions after reading Barron’s piece.

To begin, my initial qualms include what appears to be Barron’s ultimate siding with what he calls capitalism; the way he distinguishes the “mechanisms of capitalism” from the “wickedness of those who are using the market economy in the wrong way, greedily making an idol of money and becoming indifferent to the needs of others,” and his lack of substantial discussion on the topic of socialism and socialization. The first is embodied in the second and third qualm, so I will treat the second and third directly.

The mechanisms of capitalism aren’t the problem for Barron, Pope Francis, or Catholic Social Teaching, we are told, but rather, the abuse of the system by moral deficiencies and/or the decline of the institution of the family and “the attenuating of religious practice.”

The many structures found in human life are very difficult to distinguish entirely – there is a great deal of overlap. Barron appropriately stages the problem of capitalism for us in a way that may have made Robert Sirico (Acton Institute) and Michael Novak (Ave Maria University and American Enterprise Institute) smile.

It is common for supporters of capitalism to also be advocates of religious (hereafter including moral) and family life. Indeed, supporters of capitalism often invoke arguments related to religious and family life in their defense of their beloved economic system. I have not come across a consistent treatment of capitalism, religion, and family, grounded in the Catholic social tradition that concludes with a positive embrace of all three.

Barron agrees that capitalism can be used for unjust ends. What is not considered by Barron is whether injustice, greed, and indifference—including the “-isms” of materialism, irreligiousism, individualism, and relativism—generate and establish the structures of capitalism, while this economic system, at the same time, prefers and reinforces in society these very vicious “-isms” which function as capitalism’s life support.

Sirico and Novak (mentioned above) could be read as answering the question in the negative without providing any demonstration to support such a conclusion. This is particularly suspicious when the heritage of their economic thought rightfully disagrees with them.

Two pro-capitalist thinkers come to mind, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich August (F. A.) von Hayek.

Mises and Hayek, in very plain words, show that Barron’s missed question above should be answered in the affirmative. What is more devastating is that capitalism being generated and established by injustice, greed, indifference—including the “-isms” of materialism, irreligiousism, individualism, and relativism—while at the same time preferring and reinforcing in society these very vicious “-isms”, is seen by Mises and Hayek to be a good thing. We can easily find support for this reading of Mises and Hayek by turning to their works, The Anti-capitalistic Mentality (1956) and The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (1988), respectively authored.

Mises and Hayek do a fine job of tying success with relativism, concern for others with defeat. Community life and solidarity are for the materially and technologically retarded, while advanced societies (if we can use the term inappropriately here) give free reign (with implied support, at a minimum, for social Darwinism) to the acceleration of the growth of capital.

It is quite fascinating to consider that the approval of success based on worldly measure, consumerism, and consumer relativism, along with the rejection of simplicity, asceticism, spiritual pursuits, and solidarity appears to contradict the Gospel of Jesus Christ detailed in the social praxis and doctrine of the Catholic Church.

Somehow, Sirico and Novak, and Barron along with them, believe that they are able to consistently support capitalism, family, and religious life at the same time. It would seem that capitalism cannot support family or religious life if we are to understand family and religious (or moral) life in a way compatible with the Catholic faith and natural law.

Family life has been hurt by U.S. capitalism, here and abroad. One need only look towards the many ills people find as caused—in whole or in part—by the current situation begotten by the prevailing economic order: abortion, contraception use, preference-tailored laboratory babies, sterilization, divorce and a reluctance to get married, emigrating (which often pulls families apart), children without parents for most of the day due to the need for multiple incomes, and so much more.

I started the last paragraph by pointing at U.S. capitalism’s effect, here and abroad. It is important to see that capitalism in the U.S. cannot be isolated from other parts of the world in form or in effect. The latter is obvious. The former needs a clarification. Our economic system is not closed. It is not a national market. Since before the colonists rose up against the King, this land had been subject to international economics. To this day, our capitalism depends on, molds, and either elevates or destroys other capitalisms in the world. As if the aforementioned violence against life and family in the U.S. wasn’t enough, people in Latin America, for example, also suffer these injustices alongside incredible poverty, violence, and abuse.

Some may suggest that Francis not only has little issue with U.S. capitalism, but is staunchly against the “cronyism” masquerading as capitalism in the continent he calls home. This capitalism in Latin America exists, in large part, because of then-European economic models and now, primarily, U.S. models. This parallels Michael Novak’s discussion in his sixteenth chapter of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982). Novak rejects the notion that the poor of the south are suffering at the hand of a powerful north. Instead, Novak says, Latin American Catholic bishops’ condemnation of capitalism, and the life given to it by the United States and other centers of economic power, should, instead, be directed inwards.

“‘We are the victims,’ the bishops say. They accept no responsibility for three centuries of hostility to trade, commerce, and industry… After having opposed modern economics for centuries, they claim to be aggrieved because others, once equally poor, have succeeded as they have not… Before pronouncing moral condemnation, do they understand the laws which affect international currencies? Do they wish to enjoy the wealth of other systems without having first learned how wealth may be produced and without changing their economic teachings? The Peruvian aristocracy and military were for three centuries under their tutelage. Did the Peruvian bishops for three centuries teach them that the vocation of the layman lay in producing wealth, economic self-reliance, industry, and commerce, and in being creative stewards thereof?”

This, and even some teachings on economics by U.S. bishops, is nothing but an “intellectual failure”, Novak writes. Unfortunately, for Novak, we’re left intellectually incomplete by the missing treatment of the history of Latin America.

The English translation of Enrique Dussel’s A History of the Church in Latin America was published the year before Novak published the text we cited, and ten years before the release of the 1991 edition. Perhaps if Novak would have considered the history of the continent in question prior to casually dismissing the cry of the poor, and pitting the blame on their shepherds’ intellectual failures, his conclusions may have been a tad bit different.

While focusing on the history of the church in Latin America, because the social realities of human life overlap, Dussel also manages to outline the transformation of economic life in the new world. It is remarkable how easy it is to discover that the economic and physical violence attached to capital, and its pursuit of self-growth at the expense of others has been a reality in Latin America since the sixteenth century. It is evident that corruption, domination, death, and commodification have been a part of Latin American capitalism before the U.S. system appeared on stage. Wealth and power, which were often hard to distinguish, maintained their position, and were always more socially immobile than mobile, through the centuries. This along with the patronato system enforced a peace wherein the messengers of the gospel of God’s liberating love for the poor were extinguished by death or exile. It is hard to wonder why the Latin American church has had such “hostility to trade, commerce, and industry”, as Novak writes, when trade, commerce, and industry has perpetually resulted in the death of Latin American peoples.

Secularization and the revolutions did very little to help the poor of Latin America. The system of exploitation, while no longer able to feed off of Spain, offered the blood of natives to an eager, new nation, the United States. From revolutions to military coups, the U.S. system has respected the established tradition of accelerating the growth of capital for mostly private gain, utilizing military force through supported dictators in the region, with a cost of countless miserable lives.

I digress.

Robert Barron does very little to support the distinction between capitalism, different manifestations of capitalism, and the misuse of capitalism by people. He also fails to give us reason to believe that a market economy and capitalism are the same thing, as he uses capitalism and market economy interchangeably in his article—an art form found in the work of Novak and Sirico, which often leads readers to believe that capitalism is the winner.

The conclusion that the Church supports capitalism does not seem to be grounded. John Paul II goes so far as to suggest a distinction between capital and the means of production in Laborem Exercens. It does not seem to be the case that capitalism is the final option for the Christian.

Inefficiency and the rejection of the right to private property are two main targets in Barron’s gentle rejection of socialism. I am not sure what socialism Barron is referring to.

To begin, the Church does not hold property rights as absolute. Secondly, even Marx and Engels qualified their rejection of private property. We read in the Manifesto of the Communist Party:

“The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few. In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property. We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man’s own labour, which property is alleged to be the groundwork of all personal freedom, activity and independence. Hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property! Do you mean the property of petty artisan and of the small peasant, a form of property that preceded the bourgeois form? There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it, and is still destroying it daily. Or do you mean the modern bourgeois private property? But does wage-labour create any property for the labourer? Not a bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation. Property, in its present form, is based on the antagonism of capital and wage labour. Let us examine both sides of this antagonism. To be a capitalist, is to have not only a purely personal, but a social status in production. Capital is a collective product, and only by the united action of many members, nay, in the last resort, only by the united action of all members of society, can it be set in motion. Capital is therefore not only personal; it is a social power. When, therefore, capital is converted into common property, into the property of all members of society, personal property is not thereby transformed into social property. It is only the social character of the property that is changed. It loses its class character.”

See the difference?

The socialization of some means of production, given that such socialization maintains its subjective character, is not rejected by the social magisterium—indeed, at times it is suggested. (See Laborem exercens).

Also, the Magisterium has also distinguished between democratic socialism and real socialism (see Centisimus annus, by John Paul II, or Without Roots by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger). Father Barron does not. (It’s also difficult to find the distinction in Hayek and Mises.) While real socialism is rejected by the Church, certain forms of democratic socialism, that is, socialization of certain means of production with the appropriate respect for the subjective characters of the members of society, are not. (You can see my piece on Laudato si’ for more.)

Lastly, socialism, and we correct Barron’s use of socialism by referring to “real socialism”, is accused of inefficiency. Let it suffice to say that the great capitalism that continues to dominate the world has been wholly inefficient at promoting family life, protecting human and organic life, and supporting economic participation at all levels.

Capitalists should be nervous.

— Keith Michael Estrada

Keith Michael Estrada is the founder of Students for a Fair Society at Franciscan University of Steubenville and is a member of the International Observatory of Young Catholics (Rome). Finishing his MA in philosophy at the aforementioned institution, he writes from Seattle-land, Washington. He can be reached at keithmichaelestrada.com.

growing together what if unions and co

Growing Together: What if Unions and the Co-operative Movement Joined Forces?

The tentative agreement reached this weekend between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and their Port of Los Angeles employers’ organization, Pacific Maritime Association, ended a months’ long standoff between labor and management that had left cargo ships with nowhere to deposit their goods at the nation’s largest docking area. What made this situation surprising was that trade unions rarely exhibit nowadays the kind of clout and solidarity the ILWU utilized in order to bargain for the workers they represent.

It was not always this way. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld have noted the decline and fall of American unions starting in the 1970s. [Foreign Affairs, May/June 2012, Vol. 91, Issue 3, p 88-99 accessed online] In the early 1950s, during the United States’ post-war economic boom, approximately one-third of the American workforce belonged to a union. In some of the heavy manufacturing states of the Midwest union membership rates sometimes exceeded 40% of the workforce. Unions generally represented working-class males, many of whom may have come from recent immigrant stock, and were the main (often only) wage earner in their households. Many union members, especially in skilled trades, worked whole careers for one firm, and performed similar work throughout their tenure.

The success of organized labor unions – particularly large ones in key industries such as the Teamsters (trucking), United Steelworkers, United Auto Workers, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – to secure the economic well-being of this spectrum of the nation’s workforce ushered in a stable middle class. Workplace representation and collective bargaining set the country on a course where income equality was as well-distributed in our history as at any other time period. According to the “Gini co-efficient” developed by the Italian statistician Corrado Gini as a means of determining a nation’s income distribution, the U.S. was most equal in the late 1960s [1] and has become less and less so since then. [2] The labor movement’s influence has waned, not so coincidentally, as wages have stagnated and inequality has grown.

American workers have continued to raise their level of productivity. The Economic Policy Institute points out that between the years 1979 and 2013, productivity rose nearly 65%, but hourly wages of production and non-supervisory workers, who comprise the vast majority of the private sector workforce, rose only 8%. Or, put another way, workers have been getting 8 times as much done as before with little or nothing to show for their industriousness. [3] One of the key elements of workplace representation in the form of trade unions was to bargain for their members to tie productivity to gains in wages and benefits.

An important historical point about American labor history related by Western and Rosenfeld is that although the New Deal’s introduction of the National Labor Relations Board provided unions (and those that wanted to attempt to organize one) with an agency that would remain objective, the National Labor Relations Act created an elections system that required organized labor to develop a union shop or factory floor at each individual company or organization. European workers were generally more likely to have been governed by industry-wide workplace rules. While some large unions like the United Auto Workers might have successfully won concessions from the “Big 3” automobile manufacturers through similar negotiations, there was no guarantee that a union push would be successful or achieve collective or collaborative levels of pay, benefits, or contracts at other businesses.

The post-war period provided American industry (and the unions representing many of those workers) a head start in what was to become a more globalized economy because the U.S. entered the era with a fully operational infrastructure unlike much of war-torn Europe and Asia. By the 1970s, however, increasing competition put labor and management at a crossroads. Deregulation efforts by policymakers in Washington and states made it cheaper to do business by cutting controls on prices, loosening the regulations businesses had to comply with, and opened up some industries to competition (such as trucking). But the result of these moves over time meant that jobs that opened up were often ones that didn’t have union backing. For instance, non-union sub-contractors could concentrate on certain manufactured parts or services and therefore do a job for less than could a big industrial company. Independent owner-operators were less expensive than unionized Teamsters. As more money flowed to imported products or cheaper domestic organizations – cheaper because they paid less wages and benefits on average – unions had a poorer hand in negotiations with management, and over time had to accept lower, or no, raises, and less secure pensions and other benefits that had provided economic security in households across the United States. When big employers found they could talk a union down to avoid layoffs, or could simply move production to a lower wage region or outside the U.S., effective unionization fell by the wayside. Areas of the country dependent on particular employers or sectors of the economy could be decimated by closures, and economic stagnation resulted when local residents who worked for these shuttered plants were less able to be consumers of other goods and services, thereby hurting the livelihood of more citizens.

Unions would be worse off than they are if not for public sector unionization, which has actually grown since the 1970s. Approximately 2 out of every 5 employees of a government agency belong to a union (Western and Rosenfeld). Some of the most high profile unions these days are for teachers, police, and firefighters, where more than half are represented by bargaining organizations. As detractors of public sector unions like to point out, government doesn’t compete, and so the main drama is not how the bottom line is affected by giving additional compensation to employees but whether taxpayers want to support or rein in unions. Residents who may receive stagnant compensation and poor benefits from their employers may feel resentful that they contribute toward a better system for government workers. Instead of working to improve communication and a place at the bargaining table for themselves in their work lives we have begun to see a “race to the bottom” where taxpayers seek to trim benefits or pay increases for other workers who are unionized. This refusal to see solidarity with other citizens works in the opposite direction of the old adage about a rising tide lifting all boats.

It has been reported that firms without unions, which may otherwise face competition from union-shops, or just a higher than average rate of union membership in their locality, may raise pay and promote better working conditions simply so that they can stop a union from starting. But we now have had scenarios where conservative, business-friendly, politicians, aided by anti-tax groups, have engaged in open warfare to defeat unions. Governor Scott Walker has effectively eliminated collective-bargaining rights for the public sector and civil service employees in the state of Wisconsin. There will likely be a major chilling effect on the labor movement from this legislation. The Republican Party will use government employees and other “expensive” union members as a prop to pit resentful lower wage voters and wealthy tax-averse donors toward additional taming of workplace representation efforts. Meanwhile, since the 1970s, the Democrats have steadily lost the vote of the traditional working-class white voters, having alienated parts of their target market by championing socially liberal causes that run counter to those union supporters’ beliefs.

Meanwhile, American workers are told that they must contribute more toward their benefits, and they receive defined contribution plans (if they receive any at all) for their retirement instead of the defined benefit plans that provided an assured peace of mind. The resulting economic insecurity has economic ramifications. It stagnates growth because people are more concerned about their own bottom lines. There are social ramifications as well. Marriage rates have floundered due to concern over whether a potential partner is “marketable” enough.

Unions may eventually go the way of the horse and buggy, or they might find ways to serve their membership through an alliance with other movements. Cooperatives may provide a vital ally for democratizing the American workplace and working toward a society with more equality and solidarity. Cooperatives are businesses in which the employees manage the affairs of the organization themselves (or in some cases elect their peers to oversee it) and share in the profits. Cooperatives are truly democratic compared to traditional American corporations and even small businesses because the workers, as owners, usually pool their money with other employees. Having “skin in the game” means that members of a cooperative usually have higher morale than wage or salaried employees elsewhere since they can realize greater gains if they succeed and have a greater opportunity for a real say in the co-op’s direction. Similar to unions, cooperatives attempt to raise the fortunes of all its members.

The first major flowering of a possible link between traditional unions and the cooperative movement took place in 2009. The United Steelworkers (USW), based in Pittsburgh, signed an agreement with Mondragon Cooperative Corporation from the Basque region of Spain. Their objective was to collaborate on developing union-covered and cooperative business models. USW’s president Leo Gerard said that Mondragon’s “one worker, one vote” philosophy was attractive to the Steelworkers. He remarked that “(w)e see Mondragon’s cooperative model…as a means to re-empower workers and make business accountable to Main Street instead of Wall Street.” [Cooperative Grocer, January-February 2010, p. 9].

Both models have current challenges to success. Unions’ ability to provide their members with collective bargaining contracts, wages, and benefits has diminished as industries have more opportunities to relocate production. The main concern of cooperatives is being able to get enough access to capital and loans to get their businesses off the ground and maintain a level of investment great enough to (if desired) expand beyond a particular town or region.

Mondragon’s astonishing success provides a blueprint for melding the best of the hard-fought lessons learned by union members with the innovative techniques, products, and local knowledge that co-ops tend to tap into. Mondragon had an unlikely start for a successful international organization. Father Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta arrived in the small Basque town it is named for in 1941 and discovered that it was a backwater still reeling from the effects of the Spanish Civil War, with poverty, hunger, and few supporters outside the area as the Basque culture was viewed with suspicion by the Francoist regime in Madrid. Father Arizmendiarrieta created a technical college to train local youth, and together with his stress on traditional social teachings of the Catholic Church related to solidarity and civic participation, helped organize a cooperative venture. Its first industrial venture in 1956 was to build paraffin heaters. It eventually spun off additional co-ops involved in other projects, and today works as a federation of more than 200 related and allied worker-run concerns that collectively employ over 70,000 people.

There is a startling variety of ventures Mondragon is involved with, such as banking, insurance, industry, and education. Mondragon’s business model is such that when particular business lines might be doing poorly, or are phased out to bring in new products or services, the organizational flexibility allows them to re-train and allocate co-op members to working in new fields. This means that Mondragon can keep productive when other parts of the Spanish economy have floundered. For instance, when unemployment reached a whopping 24% in Spain in 2012, Mondragon only idled about 12% of its workforce, and didn’t lay off any employees at all. [4]

The cooperative model was also a bulwark against one failed Mondragon division: Fagor Electrodomesticos. Fagor concentrated on home durables, such as washing machines. But housing and construction downtowns hurt sales. The parent company offered an intra-federation bail-out to attempt to keep it afloat. When that too failed, employees were provided an opportunity to obtain positions in other cooperatives under the Mondragon umbrella. This type of solidarity-based business culture could replace the layoff culture when businesses fail in the traditional free market system here in the United States and elsewhere. [5]

But the sophistication of enterprises Mondragon has become involved with has made their success a little more daunting to attempt to emulate in another culture. That is not to say it can’t be accomplished, but that an American version of the federation will need to adapt to local conditions, concerns, and objectives.

Mondragon itself has colored outside of the lines a bit from strict adherence to traditional co-ops. One of the chief problems co-ops can fall prey to is that they work in isolation, which can put them at a disadvantage when competing against more traditional market forces. Mondragon’s network solves much of that problem by a frequent melding of interests with other lines of business. For example, some of its retail stores might involve owner-workers providing direction as one would expect, but, like a membership shopping club store in the U.S., also might invite shoppers to become members.

The collaborative effort, which has also been a feature of the flexible manufacturing networks of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, or even, at times, the old-fashioned Japanese model of networked company “families,” means that Mondragon can harness economies of scale for purchasing and forecasting like a capitalistic corporation can. A possible American model could start with (as an example) an apple orchard. However, the co-op growers of the apples would do well to try to begin an allied co-op market (then maybe a small chain of markets) so that their apples can be a featured product. If the store has success with multiple stores it should be contemplating a co-operative trucking company that could bring those apples to co-op stores that aren’t in the immediate area. All of these networks would need to continually seed new capital ventures by offering new members an opportunity to work based on additional subscriptions. There will also need to be alliances formed by like-minded but separate co-ops to advance the cause. Co-op members would need to, whenever possible, patronize the products and services of other sharing-economy outfits, bank with credit unions, support the creation of co-op trade associations, and promote educational training programs at schools of business. Pushing forward an overall collaborative economy makes the chances of success higher for each small co-op.

The meeting point for unions and co-ops in this scenario lies in the fact that unions have amassed sizeable investments, dues, and are now even in some cases running the pension and medical health plans that management used to administer. Unions could leverage their financial holdings (with affirmative member votes) to potentially buy some plants outright and turn them into worker-owned plants that might be smaller-scaled ventures.

The Union Co-op model as outlined by the Cincinnati Union Co-Ops Symposium in 2010 [6] would involve having worker-owners gathered into an assembly as an overall body for oversight and voting. The employees would elect a Board of Directors to oversee administrative duties as well as a Union Committee (which, in turn, would represent that co-op or network before a national or regional union). The Board would decide on managers. The Union Committee would negotiate contracts, wages, and benefits in concert with the appointed managers. The larger national union would in turn have the ability to achieve economies of scale to help negotiate pensions and health benefits that might not be attainable for an individual co-op. Meetings of the employees allow the opportunity to shift priorities and change management if the owners aren’t satisfied.

The Ohio Employee Ownership Center (OEOC) at Kent State University works to achieve a variety of more democratic workplaces and better distribute the means of ownership by: helping owners of businesses set up a transfer to employees, helping businesses form as Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), and assistance in developing worker-owned co-operatives.

One of the fascinating successes in the Buckeye State was the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative in Cleveland. Through assistance from local foundations and institutes of higher education, a plan developed to create wealth in low-income neighborhoods by creating a co-op business that would not take heavy capitalization to get started. It introduced the Evergreen Co-operative Laundry. Soon that was followed by Evergreen Cooperative Solar (a weatherization company), and, most recently, a Green City Growers Cooperative. All of these ventures require a low overhead in order to entering the market, keep jobs in communities, increase stability in those neighborhoods, and instill pride and co-operative decision making amongst members. [6] A similar venture in Springfield, Massachusetts called Wellspring began in its first venture through local funding organizations to seed their lift-off. Wellspring’s first business is an upholstery service to local businesses. Based in former community “anchor” institutions like the former Federal Armory buildings and workshops the co-op is training low-income residents in the upholstery business (similar to how union locals formerly did much of the skilled trades training) that they will eventually run as a team.

Evergreen and Wellspring’s model calls for early connections with established partners so that up-front capital is not required to heavily market the initiative like many new business start-ups require just to get clients. The Evergreen and Wellspring models are also developing entrepreneurial skills within a democratic system by studying what products and services their initial partners require from outside the general municipal market. Those observations could lead to new areas of expansion for the co-ops. [7]

Meanwhile, back in Ohio, the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Institute (CUCI) formed in 2009 in response to the historic USW-Mondragon agreement. CUCI has developed more closely along the lines of how Mondragon operates, with key social justice outcomes, in addition to creating economically secure jobs. Some of its initiatives like developing a sustainable food hub in the region, a metropolitan co-operative rental housing market, and a clean energy plan are complex projects that would transform not only the labor market, but home-ownership, and energy efficiency. [8]  These efforts will necessarily take longer and may not always bear fruit.

Some observers used to traditional Mom and Pop or corporate business models may look upon co-ops as quaint and conscientious but “boutique” affairs that would never be able to replace the hard-nosed trench-fighting of “real” capitalist enterprise. But Americans frequently encounter businesses that have national reach which do operate as co-ops in one form or another, such as: Ace Hardware, Associated Press, Blue Diamond nuts, Bob’s Red Mill cereals, Cabot Creamery, Ocean Spray juices, Land o’ Lakes, Sunkist beverages, and True Value stores. [9] Far from being boutiques that only congregate in hip, college towns, co-operatives actually have an equal and often greater survival rate than traditional businesses according to Erik Olsen’s research of worker-owned businesses in Uruguay, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel. [10]

As noted above, the main barrier to co-op creation is obtaining enough like-minded and skilled individuals who can “throw-in” their capital to start one. Funding and loans have usually been the biggest barriers toward traditional business start-ups too.  In the Evergreen and Wellspring initiatives, local foundations, colleges, and business incubator programs have worked collaboratively to help get co-ops going and started in the right direction. Many of them will likely be retained as advisors, mentors, and probably funders, until the original co-ops that they helped formed can spin off new ventures and pass along the know-how they’ve acquired.

The OEOC has also championed the assistance it can provide to retiring business creators and owners to keep the legacy of their venture going strong by selling or awarding the business to their employees to operate. This type of transaction could be valuable to a community in that it keeps knowledgeable people in place and jobs local.

As co-ops grow some might elect to form a union within the owner-operator framework so that all employees are covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Others might forego unionization figuring that the co-op model provides enough democracy already. But forging specific ties with unions allows co-ops to build a network toward a larger, mass movement that would be able to speak with boldness about inequalities in society and how more workplace democratization could bring about political democratization.

Having a more equitable workplace also promotes a common ground philosophy that can have real-world benefits too in building a more just society where shared interests and mutual understanding are more readily understood. Living in an era of rising income inequality, poor levels of civic participation, and a lack of good political choices have brought us to a crossroad in our society. This can be our “Fr. Jose moment” by intentionally planning our work places to give us a balance between productive work, a comfortable standard of living, a say in how our economy works, and more opportunities to spend with family and friends.

 Kirk G. Morrison

Kirk Morrison is chairman of the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party.

legislative prayer cultural right

Legislative Prayer: a Cultural Right?

The Supreme Court is currently hearing the case of Town of Greece vs. Galloway, where a Court of Appeals ruled that opening town board meetings with Christian prayers violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. According to the Los Angeles Times [1], this case “could lead to a significant shift in law separating church and state.”

As I first became acquainted with this case, my initial gut reaction was that reciting prayers in public institutions is, indeed, blatantly unconstitutional. Yet after giving the matter some careful thought, I surprisingly found myself in agreement—although, perhaps for different reasons—with those who hope that the Supreme Court will come to the defense of legislative prayer. The case I wish to briefly defend isn’t motivated by any form of religious bigotry, but is predicated on a culture’s right to self-preservation.

Culture is defined [2] as “the sum of attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group from another. Culture is transmitted, through language, material objects, ritual, institutions, and art, from one generation to the next.” Culturally-defining beliefs could be understood as being either secular or religious, as this definition—and all others I’m aware of—makes no distinction between the two. Therefore, American culture is definable in part by its relatively strong adherence [3] to religious beliefs.  While the percentage of Christians appears to be on the decline, they comprise as much as 73% [4] of the population (adherents of other faiths make up another 6%). Contrast this with a country like France, where no more than a fifth [5] of the population describes itself as religious.

Fortunately, we have come to value cultural diversity and honor a culture’s right to self-preservation. According to Article 1 [6] of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which the U.S. has ratified), “all peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

Historically, the American people have pursued their cultural development through private and public means. From preserving local historical sites to organizing musical events and art exhibitions, government institutions are routinely used to promote culture. There’s nothing scandalous about this. To my knowledge, no one has urged the courts to stop the city government of Richmond, Kentucky from organizing clog dancing classes. I see nothing natural—or constitutional—about excluding religious rituals like prayer as admissible expressions of culture in the public square, especially in a town like Greece, New York, where at least 85% of the people [7] adheres to some form of Christianity.

I don’t seek to portray opponents of legislative prayer as waging a “war on religion” or staging a “cultural genocide” against Americans. And I’m not of the view that a decision to uphold the lower court’s ruling would sound the death knell for religion in the U.S.  But I have come to believe that such a decision would constitute an act of injustice—however small—against a uniquely religious culture.

— Amir Azarvan

Amir Azarvan is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Georgia Gwinnett College.