Dear President-elect Obama,
It is a tradition among many peoples at the time of the winter solstice to remind themselves that they ought to be acting as responsible members of a cohesive community. Yes, we could be good. Sisterhood and brotherhood are possible.
In the depths of wintertime we want the sun to return, to bring warmth, growth, and harvests. Our ancestors perhaps doubted more than we do the regularity of the seasons, and feared more than we do that the sun might die or disappear altogether, leaving us permanently cold, hungry, and ultimately lifeless. Midwinter was a time to plead with the gods for mercy and to make promises to them. We promise, if the sun comes back, to be obedient and grateful. If our tradition happens to be Judeo-Christian promising to be obedient means promising to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Nothing is less outdated or more timely than the ancient wisdom of Christmastime. Indeed, if we would but cooperate and share throughout the year, we could solve all our social problems.
The first-lady elect made us a very timely and practical request in her Christmas Letter: she asked us to donate food to our local Food Pantry. Please let her know that I did what she asked me to do. I gave twelve one-pound packages of noodles, ten packets of dried soup, ten cans of tuna fish, twelve packages of rice and twelve of sugar each weighing two pounds each, a case containing twelve bottles of cooking oil, and a one hundred pound sack of flour.
Many of our institutions are ambiguous because it is not clear whether the spirit of Christmas or the every day spirit of possessive individualism is supposed to govern them. During your campaign for the presidency you resolved in your speeches an important ambiguity regarding our free market economy. For several centuries the free market economy has been a set of institutions with an unstable image, now a duck now a rabbit depending on how you look at it. The duck is Christmas. As a duck the market is a remarkable human invention which we have constructed to meet our needs. The rabbit is every day life. As a rabbit the market is simply natural reality which we have to adjust to whether we like it or not.
You resolved the ambiguity in favor of the duck by reframing our history. According to your interpretation the American economy has always been designed to serve a higher purpose. It has been re-designed from time to time to make it serve its higher purpose better.
The higher purpose is –if I may borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr. to express a communitarian and pragmatic concept embedded in your speeches and in Michelle’s Christmas Letter– the building of a “beloved community.” In simpler terms: we share the noodles. If there are too few noodles, or if some people are left out and do not get any, then we change the rules to fix the problem. You did not ask the voters for a mandate to change the system. You offered them an ethical interpretation of what the system has always been.
As you probably already know, there are many good ideas for building a beloved community in Martin Luther King Jr.’s book Where do we go from here: chaos or community? There are more in Riane Eisler’s recent book The real wealth of nations.
Let me mention a few from our local Food Pantry. We do not give any food away. People in our neighborhood do not apply for food stamps. They do not apply for relief. Nor have we fallen into the “workfare” trap that Bill Clinton fell into: we do not try to wedge masses of unemployed poor people into the tiny supply of existing jobs. Here people apply for community service. We create the jobs, finding useful things for them to do (for more on how to find useful thing for people to do see the books by King and Eisler). In our neighborhood unemployment does not exist. Or, to the put the matter another way, even the unemployed are working.
Concerning your more recent speeches, let me congratulate you on your plans for creating more government jobs, especially the ones that get things done that the free market economy does not get done enough (like reforesting the hillsides).
But let me dissent from the “stimulus” packages. Here the rabbit has blinded the majority of Americans so that they cannot see the duck.
America’s situation is one that gives new meaning to the word “absurd.” There is plenty of food. There is plenty of housing. There is plenty of clothing. There is plenty of almost everything and too much of many things.
The economic problems that frustrate America are entirely about legal fictions. We are frustrated because people do not have money. Because people are in debt. Because the values of homes and stock market investments have fallen. Because people do not have employment. Because they do not have incomes or because the incomes they have are insufficient to enable them to buy what they need.
When physically we have no problems at all, we nevertheless tie ourselves in knots because the economy has ceased generating legal entitlements to participate in the stock of physical goods that is already in existence.
We are so blinded by our own ideology that we think the only desirable way to get money to the poor is for them to find jobs, and the only way to create jobs is to make it profitable for employers to hire, and the only way to make it profitable for employers to hire is for employers to find more paying customers. So we grant huge tax breaks to millions of people whom we fondly hope will be customers of American firms, while borrowing money from China to pay the government’s bills.
Time will show, I am sure, that we would have been better off with more imagination, more ancient wisdom, more listening to women, more character education and moral education, more neighborhood cooperation, and more private sector charity; we would be better off with an anthropological paradigm instead of an economic paradigm.
I do not mean to imply in these letters that big business and the profit motive are irrelevant. I plan to discuss them later.
Meanwhile, I want to congratulate Michelle for her fine Christmas letter and you for your fine reframing of American history. They are the duck-stuff of which beloved community is made.