Thursday, June 11, 2015

What is an Artist Worth? A Letter to My Young Cousin

My cousin's 16 year old son and I got into a conversation over on fb after I posted a meme of Bernie Sanders congratulating LA for raising their minimum wage. This is a continuation of that conversation.

Dear Isaiah, 

Because I am no economics genius :), I thought it makes more sense to map out my position by giving you the coordinates of my values first, and to at least touch on how your assumptions feel foreign to those values. Please understand that these are not points in a political position. They are my deeply held and deeply felt core values and way of seeing the world. Many different streams contribute to this pond of values:  almost a half-a century (one more year, grrrr.) of life experience: being born into and spending my early childhood in dismal, impoverished, abusive circumstances; growing up in the chaos of a liberal, laissez-aller, and deeply dysfunctional foster family; many, many of my own mistakes, failures and wrong choices; some successes;  experiencing the often pivotal effect in my life of other’s generosity; traveling around the world and living for longer periods in several different cultures; co-parenting a family of three kind, loving and generous children; living in and leading a community; living with pain and disability; extensive reflection and evaluation of these experiences and of the good and bad role-models and examples that have figured in my story; lots and lots of books, and stories, and movies; reading and reflecting on the abundance of Christian tradition and literature, not least of all the Bible itself; profiting from the fruits of other’s scientific observation, experimentation, information gathering, discoveries, inventions etc; the years I have spent studying conflict; and perhaps most importantly, experiencing grace and being so often transformed by this mysterious and unexplainable and unforeseeable reality I would call the Spirit of God. 

So, here are things I have come to believe and hold to be true, often fail miserably to live out, but keep coming back to as a worthy compass. 

I deeply cherish the story of creation in the Bible. 
(I don’t care, whatsoever, about the creation - evolution debate.) 
For me the opening chapters of the Bible establish a change in paradigms, the understanding of which takes on a whole new depth once you have lived in an animistic culture like PNG, as I have. What I take away from the creation story is this:

1.) The planet we live on is part of a Time-Space matrix, which is not a hostile, unknowable, unpredictable, untamable “Hunger Games” arena ruled by unappeasable gods and ancestor spirits, nor by simple randomness, but rather its foundations are knowable, and it has been given to us as a great big canvas, or playground and garden; it is inherently valuable, and we should care for it and protect it.

2.) We are all Artists: I believe that this is the core of our human identity. We were created in the image of a creator (all we know at that point of the text!), the Alpha Artist to be artists ourselves! It is the foundation of human dignity, the basis of every single person’s fundamental worth, and it is the fountain of their inexhaustible potential. It establishes a baseline for the respect due to everyone, no matter their circumstances or what they have done or failed to do, for the debt we owe to every man, woman and child, to love them and let them live in dignity.
3.) We are all Screw Ups: In all of my years, I have never met anyone who was perfect, who never messed up, or who had a spotless record or character. Not a single one. Ever.  

4.) We are diverse: Each person is unique (and screws up in his/her own unique way). Each one of us show up somewhere on a spectrum in any given point of what we think, believe, have, look like, what we can or can’t do, where we are from, and no two people overlap in all points exactly, ever.  Unfortunately we tend to divide up and evaluate each other, favor or neglect, esteem or hold in contempt, empower or exploit, according to these four categories: a) Bodies (gender, race, disability/ability, age) b) Geographical location (which influences ethnicity, culture, language, sports team) c) Ideology (politics, religion (tho it is often connected to location, people can and do switch) d) Economic class (what we have/don’t have in wealth, property, opportunity, mobility, education, skills, and status symbols)

Because of these last two points,

5.) Conflict is an inevitable part of life: After eating, relieving oneself, and sleeping, conflict is the next thing on the list that make up our lives the moment we live in a human plural. Our ways of dealing with conflict can either be constructive or destructive, and that will depend on whether we respond with shame/hubris or guilt/grace when differences arise.
- Shame Leads to Competition, Isolation, Exploitation, Exclusion, and Violence,
- Guilt is empathic and leads to authenticity and vulnerable truth-telling (confession), restitution (Zacchaeus, Luke 19:1-10), and can lead to reconciliation, justice and deep community

6.) I believe in, have experienced, and work towards Redemption:  People (and things in a way) who have been broken by their own or other’s shortcomings, who have been rolled over by the consumer and domination systems of this world and have been isolated, exploited, excluded or violated, or who have done these things, can be resurrected, reclaimed, re-created, and reinstated in community, through grace, forgiveness, and a renewed investment in their inherent and potential value.

7.) Capitalism vs. Kingdom of God: Though the domination systems of this world are wreaking havoc all over the globe for the love of mammon, and in the name of “progress”, or purity, or glory, and tho the destruction and cruelty and suffering often seem so utterly hopeless, I do still hold on to the belief that it is never in vain to believe in, pray for, and work toward Shalom, Ubuntu, “God’s kingdom, His will on earth as it is in Heaven,” the culture of faith, hope, love, peace and justice, interdependence, mutual flourishing for everyone and all of creation and in this life, which God intended from the beginning.  
“The free market system,” capitalism, or America are no proxies for God’s Kingdom. They are not “baby sitters” until the time of judgement. They are corrupt systems of this world, which we must find someway to live in with integrity, but must never mistake for the Kingdom of God. My first allegiance is to live these “kingdom” values and culture here on earth, as part of the world wide body of Christ, and in my experience, that is usually done outside of, despite, in subversion to, and circumventing the “free market systems.”

8.) Concretely for me, this means doing the things that God does in this world:
- creating
- nurturing
- protecting
- empowering

There is no dividing these up, that some people should do one or some of them, and others something else. If you leave any one of these things out, things get messed up, people become exploited machines, get neglected, become enslaved, or are disenfranchised of rights and responsibilities as an interdependent member of community.

Everyone has been called and given the responsibility and authority to live that way. EVERYone.

10.) However, not everyone has the same amount of power at their disposal.
  • Though some of that power/advantage might be self wrought (i.e. the parable of the Talents, the ones with more money did actually invest it to profit), no one is born into a vacuum. No one, anywhere, gets to greater advantage purely on their own steam and merit. Attitudes of entitlement are dangerous and out of place in the economics of God’s Kingdom.
  • Always where there is a greater amount of power, there is a greater responsibility to use that power to be creative (innovative), to nurture, to protect and to empower those with less power. Contempt for those in positions of less power and advantage is never warranted. (“There, but for the grace of God, go I”)
  • Even in a position of less or very little power, there are creative, nonviolent ways to circumvent and subvert abuse of power by the systems of domination and work toward mutual flourishing. (i.e. see all the Gospels)

11.) Sabbath, tithing, Gleaning and Jubilee: Because of all these things above, I believe that we don’t have to “go over our fields twice”, trying to squeeze every last drop of profit for ourselves, take every advantage, maximize the bottom line to the expense of other values and other people, or work seven days a week to get ahead, but that we can “leave some” for others, rest, quiet our ambitions, realign ourselves with our core values, give back and pay it forward. Jubilee addresses the devastating injustice of generational poverty, children paying for the sins, mistakes, misfortune, or outright victimization of their parents and grandparents, their ethnic group, their race, or their bodies, and gives people a clean slate, a chance to start over, an outside intervention to break this otherwise inescapable cycle of poverty, self-destruction, and, often, violence. 

So, that is where I am coming from. What follows is my breaking down how your comments and arguments sound to me, where they strike a nerve, and where they appear to collide with my values.

Assumption #1: Brain over Brawn: Cognitive labor over manual labor. White collar vs. Blue collar jobs. The “years you spent training” your brain to understand and perform complicated computer codes (time & attention) is inherently more valuable and deserves more reward than the personal cost of physical labor. So much more, in fact, that the latter does not even deserve a living wage for the time and effort he/she actually spends working.
  • It is true that at different times our society needs different things and rewards those things with more money and acclaim. After WWII tenacity, hard work, practicality, elbow grease were needed to rebuild a bombed out Germany, but now that it has built a strong economy, we need creative, innovative thinkers more than ever to help solve problems in the ever more complicated world we live in: sustainability, conflicts in pluralistic, over populated societies, energy crises, etc. But those skills are not more valuable in an absolute sense. Nor does it mean that other skills become irrelevant or unnecessary. This should go without saying, but service, agricultural, educational, and industrial jobs (building infrastructure) are the backbone of a society. The unfortunate fact is, our society tends to reward those jobs the most that not only contribute little to no real value or product, but actually harm and degrade and destroy it. Think Wall street, porn, celebrities, cigarettes, alcohol, etc. It doesn’t take long to see who our free market pushes to the top. 
Assumption #2: That flipping burgers takes “0” skill. Not just less skill, or little skill, but “0” skill. 
  • I hear contempt: “0” skill means “0” value, “0” respect, “0” slice of the shalom. 
  • I will give you the benefit of the doubt, and assume that this is hyperbole, and that what you really mean is “less” or “little” skill. 
  • I have not “flipped burgers,” but I have bussed tables, served desserts, hosted and waited on tables, and worked with line cooks, bakers and dishwashers, and am alive to tell you, that it was the hardest, most stressful job I have ever done. It was my first boot camp of life and I had to really scramble to learn to multitask, know and recite the entire menu and wine list by heart, remember orders (an utter nightmare for me), be speedy (as in yesterday already!), be organized, balance trays, carry heavy trays, walk at least 5 to ten miles during shifts, be cordial and diplomatic while taking crap from nasty and upset people, constantly get hit on and hear rude, sexist remarks, work in a team, do math (ugh!). And I made 2,15 an hour (plus fluctuating, unreliable tips). I would get negative pay checks at the end of the month! The work was so hard, that it literally broke my back and gave me a handicap that I have had to live with the rest of my life. 

Assumption #3: “Flipping burgers is a stand in for every low wage job on the market, and therefore, these low wage jobs are equally “unskilled” and therefore less-rewardable.
  • Of course there are many more factors to figure into calculating someone’s wage than the amount of skill involved. Risk of injury, danger, health risks, labor intensity, discomfort, amount of intrinsic reward, necessity to a functioning society (trash-men are paid relatively well here in Germany). Here is a list of the 10 worst paid jobs in America:  (Hard to believe that life guards are paid more than farm workers, and that parking lot attendants are paid more than personal care aids) 
  • “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 22 percent of Americans hold one of the lowest paying jobs that the agency categorizes.” 
  • In addition to working in restaurants,  I have worked as a receptionist,  cleaned houses, worked in daycare, taught in schools, and worked retail, among other things, and none of those jobs paid a living wage, or even what the sacrifice, time, effort and, yes, skill deserved.

Assumption #4: Any such job is/should only be regarded as a stepping stone. Anyone who stays in such a low-wage job does so because they are too lazy to move themselves forward, to get themselves on the train of progress. It is their own fault (“poor life decisions down the road,” “lack of character,” “he has a disease” ), if they stay in these jobs past their teenage years.
  • This is such reductionistic thinking, that I hardly know where to begin. 
  • I think of the people who love to cook, and want to be cooks (even will spend their own money to do it).
  • I think of my brother who is highly skilled and gifted at making homes beautiful, who does what he loves with excellence and is just barely keeping his head above water (as a single guy!).
  • I think of the people who love young children, and want to be child care workers.
  • I think of someone I know who is barely surviving, supporting a family, being a self employed hairdresser (not to mention the poor souls who are exploited by large chains!), who is fantastic at what he does and is a blessing to me (the cliche is totally true of hairdresser-priest-psychologist in our case, and I end up crying every time I'm in his chair): Why is that less valuable than what you do? Where should he climb to from there? He works long and hard, values excellence, wants to live creatively in charitable community doing what he is gifted to do and provide for his family. Why isn’t it enough to do those things with dignity? Why should he struggle, not to live in luxury, but to just barely scrape by?
  • But beyond that, there are myriads of reasons why people don’t, can’t or choose not to move out of what you consider to be “stepping stone,” menial labor jobs. Sure laziness, hopelessness, and lack of courage are probably the reasons for some. But to assume that you know the motivations, circumstances, opportunities, roadblocks, and pressures that 22% of Americans face is uncharitable and unworthy of you. 
  • I believe we are interdependent, and that everyone has something different to contribute, and that the eye should not say to the nose, “You shouldn’t just be a nose, you should strive to be an eye,” because then the thing would be a cyclops and that would be gross. (I Corinthians 12:12-18)
Assumption #5: That a free market society (pure capitalism) is the cat’s meow. That it is fair and somehow is immune to man’s sinfulness, greed and lust for power, and everyone has the same chance at making it work for them if they only tried.
  • See #7, 10 and 11 of my values.
Assumption #6: Not only that, but the free market is actually a good tool for disciplining and educating and bringing about good character, motivating the bottom feeders to progress to the next rung on the latter.
  • I did not make a change in my life, sign up for college, after three years of waitressing because it paid too little. I would not have stayed in the job if it had paid a decent, living wage (one where I could work just 40 hours and still pay rent, eat, not be naked). I knew that I needed to move on. I was not satisfied or fulfilled being a waitress. Maybe for someone else, that is the thing, but I was neither gifted in doing it, nor did I draw any meaning from it. These last 20 years I have been doing things that do have meaning for me and for what I am better gifted, and I have made almost no money doing them (tho, that is another bone to pick).  
  • I also would not have been able to move on, if it were not for the foresight and generosity of your great grandfather, my grandpa, who steered me back in the direction of college, when it seemed like that door had closed to me, AND who covered ALL of my expenses! Talk about Jubilee! Grandma and Grandpa were my Jubilee!!!!
Assumption #7: money corrupts poor people, but not the “successful”
  • see value #3 “we are all screw ups”
Assumption #8: “successful” = progress, only progress leads/should lead to more money, progress is the premium value.
  • Hmmm… doesn’t look too good for a certain Nazarene I know...
  • How does God measure success? I can think of several passages in the Gospels, where Jesus holds up very unlikely people as examples for the disciples.
  • I would say that deep connection and charitable community are the bottom line.
Assumption #9: People only change when they hit rock bottom, so it is good to have an economic system that has a “rock bottom” built into it. 
  • This has been shown not to be the case with addiction. People are more inclined to change, when they think there is a hope and a possibility that they will be able to.
  • Tell that to Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), who after years of being punished for his sins with shunning and exclusion from the Jewish community to no effect, instantly responded to the kindness, respect and inclusion that Jesus showed him with repentance and restitution and was re-instated in the community of God’s children.
Assumption #10: That the value of hard work, which your parents instilled in you, is the full extent of the privilege you enjoy.
  • Really? 
  • In just about every category I mentioned in value#4 you come out a lap ahead of the rest. 
  • And so does my son. 
  • Location, Body, Ideology, Class … do I really need to take you through a head to head comparison with some of the people I have met in my travels? ‘Cause, I will if you want me to.
  • None of that is your fault, nor is it something anyone has the right to try and take away from you or make less of. But many of the things that give you and my son an advantage in this world came to you the very day you were born and could do absolutely nothing about. To look at the distance between you and someone far, far behind you and pat yourself on the back for it makes me wince. 
  • Gratitude. That is the only appropriate response. Gratitude and a commitment to create, nurture, protect, and empower those who have not been dealt a full house in the grueling economics of this world.
  • This is a truth that has touched our son in a profound way during his time in PNG. In the many Skypes we have had with him, he must have told us dozens of times, that he keeps asking himself, with tears, “How did I get so lucky? Why was I born in Germany? Why was I born into such a great family? How did I get so lucky to have the best parents? (see what I did there?). I pray and hope that this realization and gratitude of his also translates to a life-long commitment to create spaces of justice, feed the hungry, give living water to those who are thirsting for meaning and relevance, clothe the naked with dignity, and give strength and confidence to the weak to live in the fullness of their rights and responsibilities as Artists on this earth.
Assumption #11: That you are smarter than Bernie Sanders.
  • Um… I am not smarter than Bernie Sanders, so...
  • :-)

Argument #1: That the wage raise will, must be, passed on to the consumer.
Argument #2: Wage raise for some will mean job loss for others.

Argument #3: Wage raise will lead to product devaluation/inflation (??)
Argument #4: There are alternative ways to betterment (self, community, environment), which circumvent the current capitalistic and consumer addicted society. (retooling a computer you found in the trash).
  • YEAH!!!!!  We agree on something! Yippy! Only my most favoritest thing ever! My house is full of “trash,” things, furniture, appliances (Jan got my espresso machine from the street! No fixing needed!), that we found on the street, in flea markets, or thrift stores, hand-me-downs, give aways, and cheapo finds at the 2nd chance corner of Ikea. My #1 hobby is refurbishing and repurposing such furniture finds. But then, hey, Peter and Sharon are your Grandparents and my favorite Aunt and Uncle, so what else can you expect? :) (but you can literally chase me out of a room by opening up and doing surgery on a computer! I can’t even look at it or my brain will blow a fuse)


Jan Fischer said...

good. hard to beat your arguments!

Andrew J. Hill said...

I love it... especially this:

"3.) We are all Screw Ups"