Relative Versus Absolute Poverty, Wages Versus Income And The Need for Resurrecting Hermeneutics

Relative Versus Absolute Poverty, Wages Versus Income And The Need for Resurrecting Hermeneutics

There is a real life story that has haunted me since it occurred 25 or so years ago.  The University of Detroit, at which I was teaching at the time, had a very diverse student body from many nations and nearly every continent.  As Chair of the Economics Department, I spent a considerable amount of time in the departmental office counseling both undergraduate and graduate students.

One day, early in the afternoon, an African student, from Nigeria I believe, came storming into my office shouting about poverty.  He wanted to know where the poverty, about which he had so often heard, could be found as he had seen none in the Metro area of Detroit and none in his travels around the U.S.

I had never seen him before and have never seen him since.  After he calmed down a bit, I talked to him and told him that if he journeyed a few blocks to the southeast of the campus, he would find a large area of many square miles with tens if not hundreds of thousands of people living in material poverty.  He just shook his head and said he had done so on more than one occasion and found no such poverty.

I, of course, had in mind the relative material poverty of the developed world while he was talking about the abject or absolute material poverty so common in the ‘Third World’.

I suddenly remembered about Biafra in southern Nigeria where absolute or abject material poverty was the norm.  The government of Nigeria (an oil rich member of OPEC) had recently launched attacks to quell the riots there in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The work of Blessed (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta among the destitute and dying souls of the impoverished parts of India flashed across my mind.

On Sept. 23, 2011, some 25 or so years since that incident, I was attending a conference of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars at the Inn of St. Johns in Plymouth, Michigan, where earlier in the morning I had presented a paper on Catholic Social Teaching and the Case for Competitive Free Market Capitalism.  The president of the organization, Fr. Joseph W. Koterski, S.J, was commenting on the need for defining the terms about which much confusion seemed to reign.  The term, Hermeneutics, was used a number of times.  That term refers to the meaning of words. It is…

“Derived from a Greek word connected with the name of the god Hermes, the reputed messenger and interpreter of the gods. It would be wrong to infer from this that the word denotes the interpretation or exegesis of Sacred Scripture. Usage has restricted the meaning of hermeneutics to the science of Biblical exegesis, that is, to the collection of rules which govern the right interpretation of Sacred Scripture. Exegesis is therefore related to hermeneutics, as language is to grammar, or as reasoning is to logic.”

Memories of my undergraduate days at the University of Detroit gushed forth.  I could picture in my mind as clear as could be, those wonderful Jesuit Fathers A. Patrick Madgett, S.J., J. Remi Belleperche, S.J., Edward F. Maher, S.J., Vincent L. Brennan, S.J., Emmett O’Connell, S.J., Jules J. Toner, S.J.,  Edmund J. Montville, S.J., Charles A. Weisgerber, S.J.,  and others.  The excellent lay faculty joined the flood of those memories, Desire Barath, Leonard D. Maliet,  S.W. Budzinowski, Robert M. Biggs Louis W. Matusiak, Raymond Zulaf, and many others blanketed my consciousness.  All have since gone to their eternal reward, the Beatific Vision I am sure.  As they taught me, they are the Church Triumphant, praying for and encouraging the Church Militant.

  • Church Militant – us Catholics living on earth now. Our spiritual armor is Baptism, Communion, Confession, Penance, Confirmation, Marriage in the Catholic Church with realizing it is “Three to be Married” with God above the couple, Adoration, Rosary, Almsgiving,  ”Offering it Up”, etc.
  • Church Suffering – the Holy Souls in Purgatory who in turn can pray for encouragement, endurance, courage, perseverance for the Church Militant on earth, as long as we pray for them, and remember to ask for their prayers.
  • Church Triumphant – the Saints in Heaven, who can continuously intercede for us with God, as we ask for their help with our needs.”

Those memories continued for a bit and I recalled the persistent insistence by the Jesuit Fathers that when arguing and discussing propositions, one should always define the terms being used. Words are shells that often are used with different contents. Democracy to one in reality is tyranny to another, although both use the same term, democracy.

To some, the term poverty means abject, absolute material poverty, while to others it means relative material poverty since the income of many of the poor in our society would enable them to be materially much better off in a Third World society.

Some use the term wage as though it was income as in discussing such things as a living or family wage. To a well versed economist, wages or its more contemporary equivalent, compensation to employees which includes both wage and non-wage components, is but one type of income. Some use the term wealthy when referring to income but income and wealth, although related, have different meanings. And so it goes.

The result is that two discussants that appear to disagree with one another would often be in agreement if the terminology was cleared up, while two discussants that seem to be in agreement with each other would often be in disagreement if the meaning of the terms being used were defined properly.

Examining more deeply one such example is the use of the term poverty.  In a materially rich nation like the U.S of A., where the annual median household income is $49,445 in current dollars, would in the impoverished areas of the Third World represent the materially very well off.  Currently in the U.S., the threshold income level of $20,000, below which are 20% of the households, would place that household among the top one-third of households in Third World nations, if not higher.

Not too long after the incident of which I spoke at the beginning of this article, I was standing in the Liberal Arts office next to a priest of some international fame who was a widely acclaimed as well as a self-professed “Christian Marxist”.  This expression was to me the grandfather of all oxymorons.  I studied and wrote several papers on Karl Marx and in my mind, by no stretch of the imagination could he and his ideas be labeled, Christian.

I knew this good Father well as I had developed a course on the “Foundations of Free Enterprise Capitalism and the Radical Criticism Thereof” so that a radical (left) economics professor and two of the more radical Jesuit Fathers could interact with Professor Desire Barath and me in an academic setting.  It was offered over several years until the priest to which I have been referring, developed cancer and died just as he was to begin a new semester with this course as part of his teaching load.

After a bit of idle chatter, I asked the good Father if we would discuss the meanings and moral implications of the terms relative and absolute material poverty.  In a tone of dismissive finality that I thought I would hear only from Almighty God at my judgment, he said to me that he would not engage in such a discussion.  So much for hermeneutics!

In our nation, one of the most highly materially developed not only currently but in all of history, does moral imperative to be charitable as Blessed John Paul II exhorted the faithful have the same meaning in developed nations as it does in a Third World nation where abject absolute material poverty abounds?  We need to clear the air, so to speak, and here is where hermeneutics could help greatly.

In a discussion session at the Fellowship Conference last September, I pointed out that the legislating of a family or living wage in the form of a minimum wage has very negative effects, especially for the marginalized workers at the low end of the wage scale.  If it is effective, i.e., above the equilibrium wage in that particular labor market, it will result in what is termed voluntary unemployment as the higher minimum above the equilibrium level will reduce the quantity demanded of labor and increase the quantity supplied.  Some will be better off but many will be worse off and not have a job.  A far better approach, I argued, is a tax credit for low income taxpayers called the earned income tax credit.

In a future article, I would like to examine the question of responsibility in conjunction with a right.  In the case of income redistribution, does Catholic Social Teaching require those relatively well off to support such redistribution policies to the same degree in well developed nations like the  U.S. as they would in poorer nations such as third World nations?  Are there also responsibilities that the beneficiaries of such policies have to the extent they have the ability to offer themselves as productive resources such as labor, in the production process?

In his magnificent book, History of Economic Analysis, Joseph A. Schumpeter examined the role of the Scholastic School in general and the Spanish Jesuits in particular concerning such moral issues as charging interest on loans.  It changed the interpretation of what is sinful and what is not in this area.  Especially in the area of finance, we need more such efforts in this rapidly changing world.  While some actions are intrinsically evil, most of life’s decisions are often made in the world of gray, not in the world of black or white.  The meanings of words do matter.

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Written by
Donald Byrne