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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Can a Good Mormon Make Over $100,000 a Year?

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

This post is, in a sense, a sequel to two older posts: "Can a Good Mormon be a Meritocract?" and "Can a Good Mormon be a Socialist?" In case you can't be bothered to read until the end, the answers to the three questions are: "Probably not," "Yes," and "Sometimes, maybe, but seriously, why would you want to take that risk anyway?"

S. Michael Wilcox's recent book, What the Scriptures Teach Us about Prosperity, brought these old questions, as well as new ones, to my mind. Wilcox's book came out several months ago, and has received some careful attention during that time. But just not quite the right kind of attention, I think. As Dave Banack wrote in the just-linked review of the book, Wilcox's approach is very straightforward and true to his title: he "discusses literally hundreds of scriptures on wealth and riches...[and] offers the sort of good advice and commentary one expects from an experienced teacher with plenty of stories and observations to share." It's therefore reasonable, I suppose, to assume that readers of the book will overwhelmingly view it similarly: as a compendium of scripturally based recommendations about how to address the many perennial concerns over wealth--how to get it, how much to get, and what to do with it once you've gotten it (assuming you ever do). But I come away from the book thinking that the cumulative affect of the hundreds of scriptures and stories which Wilcox shares should be looked at a little more critically, and little more systematically, than such an approach allows. To be sure, the book provides no theory of political economy, no philosophy of property, no grand historical or economic synthesis of the various Mormon experiments with communalism and consecration. But Wilcox does give us a guiding thesis: namely, "a most remarkable prophecy given by the Apostle Melvin J. Ballard" at the annual general conference of the church in 1929, "just a few months," Wilcox reminds his readers, "before the stock market crash that propelled America in the Great Depression" (p. 3). At the heart of that prophecy is this:

I am as sure as that I live that the promises of the Lord will be fulfilled, and that this work shall not fail, nor shall it be given to another people. I recognize however, with my brethren, that the sorest trials that have ever come to the Church in any age of the world are the trials of peace and prosperity. But we are to do a new thing, a thing that never has before been done--we are to take the Church of Christ not only through the age of persecution and mob violence, but through the age of peace as prosperity...I am not praying for the return of persecution and poverty; I am praying for peace and posterity; but above all things for the strength and the power to endure this test. For it was not the design and the intention of the Lord to have this people always in suffering in bondage and distress. They shall come to peace and prosperity, but it is the sorest trial that will come to them. (p. 4)

This is the dual notion which guides Wilcox throughout the book or so I believe: he wants, first of all, to let his fellow members of the Church to understand that the relatively enormous wealth and security enjoyed by the bulk of the likely readership of the book--the white middle- and upper-class American Mormon shoppers at Deseret Books--is, in the eyes of God and His prophets, a terrible trial...and second, he wants them--he wants us--to know the teaching of the scriptures so we may better endure this trial. Some might wonder whether Wilcox really had in mind, even implicitly, such a specific audience, but I would suggest that the way he repeatedly turns the lessons of the scriptures (all of which, again and again, as Wilcox demonstrates persuasively and at great length, insist that all the wealth of this world belongs to the Lord, that wealth is a dangerous gateway to pride and sin, and that wealth ought never be used to set one person above another) against the American passion for "building greater" and ever newer and fancier homes (p. 13-14), against the economic territoriality which created "the gulf [that is] Interstate 15" through Salt Lake valley (p. 27), against the American passion for unnecessary and luxurious "dainties" (p. 83), against the "extravagant" salaries of Fortune 500 CEOs (p. 117), against our unwillingness to make do with "modest" clothes, cars, and homes which would save us from consumer debt, despite direct counsel from President Hinckley to the contrary (p. 158)...all of this, and more, points to the idea that we should take Wilcox's claims as not abstract suggestions, but very specific and pointed warnings. Wilcox, to be sure, is no Hugh Nibley, pouring out prophetic outrage upon a people entirely too comfortable with the peace and prosperity which have come along with acquiescence to the American way of life...but, it seems to me anyway, it's unlikely that someone of Wilcox's intelligence and diligence could study what the scriptures have to say about prosperity so thoroughly and not end up sounding some of the same themes.

How do these themes, these warnings and concerns which motivate Wilcox's book, connect with the questions I mentioned above? Because both of those earlier questions, in different ways, deal with how we as members of the church should arrange our lives in light of the principles of scriptures lay down. In earlier years, the church as an institution was in a position to help its members so organize their lives, and in so doing attempted to see to it "that the poor shall be exalted...[and] that the rich are made low" (D&C 104:16). There is much that can still be said about, and still learned from, the church's attempts to establish the law of consecration--but to quote Dave's review again, at the present moment "the law of consecration is dead; long live the principles of consecration." Wilcox, while not so succinct, essentially approaches the church's legacy of economic communalism in this same light, breaking it down into "foundational pillars" rather than institutional guidelines: "We belong to God. All that we have belongs to God. The Lord does not respect one person above another and would have us think the same, esteeming everyone as we do ourselves and concerned for their welfare. The earth has enough for all is some do not take more for themselves at the expense of others not having enough" (p. 180). To be sure, such ethical principles are of enormous import. But how do we really know if we are arranging our affairs such that we can do more than give lip service to such principles of consecration? He voices this worry quite plainly:

Let us say we resist the temptation to build greater. We are not allowing wealth to build gulfs and barriers, and we are not continually shopping for the dainties. We are giving to the poor wisely and doing all we can to build up Zion. All of our church obligations of tithes and offerings are current. We are not in debt. Indeed, we have everything we need for passage through the needle's eye. Yet we still should pause and ask ourselves, can we handle the pride that might come if we are successful in obtaining more of the world's offerings? Can we handle the temptation to think we are better because we have more? (p. 169)

This is where the first two questions come in. If these really are the sorts of principles that good Mormons are to commit themselves to, then should we really feel at peace with making life choices premised upon always pursuing (and expecting to be rewarded for) excellence and advantage, in any field of endeavor, even if we "merit" it? Should we really feel at peace with making life choices premised upon the constant (and, presumably, self-interested) expansion of ownership, opportunity, and profit, even if we have "earned" it? Both ways of seeing ourselves and the world, at the very least, invite constant comparisons of the sort which Wilcox sees being explicitly condemned in Jesus's parable of the laborers (p. 41-43), and invite a lack of gratitude for the simple things which Wilcox sees Old Testament prophets calling for us to value most (p. 126-127).

Does this mean that Wilcox thinks the scriptures' frequently condemnations of wealth should be taken as a condemnation of work, or trying to improve ourselves? Hardly. If anything, I would actually argue that Wilcox's use of the scriptures, and the warnings he directs against his mostly wealthy (or at least comfortable) readership from out of them, are to a degree parallel with the arguments made by Matthew Crawford in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft (discussed in a Mormon context here). After all, great wealth, in today's globalized and information-based economy, is most often the result of a specialized education and involves elite tasks (and Wilcox has some sharp things to say about the inequality in the "position or the prestige that society has placed on any particular occupation"--p. 28), both of which often tend to take people away from the virtues of humbler, more serviceable tasks. (Wilford Woodruff's sharp comment is relevant here: "The tendency, which is too common in these days, for young men to get a smattering of education and then think themselves unsuited for mechanical or other laborious pursuits is one that should not be allowed to grow up among us...Every one should make it a matter of pride to be a producer, and not a consumer alone"--Millennial Star [November 14, 1887], 773.) The take-away lesson, I think, is that if we take seriously the scriptural and prophetical warnings about the "sore trial" of prosperity, and if therefore we truly want to be humble and charitable, to avoid contributing to the divisions and deprivations caused by great inequalities in wealth, to devote ourselves to our fellow man and the principles of Zion and consecration, then, eventually, we're going to have to ask ourselves if, in our economic lives, our own choices might not be getting in the way our own best intentions. And that brings us to the third question.

Wilcox talks about an experiment he once conducted, more than 30 years ago, with a class he was teaching in Colorado. "I heard on the news the salaries of the top three executives of the bank that held most of our subdivision's mortgages. The three salaries totaled more than one million dollars. They each make about $400,000 per year. (I do not know how much that would translate to in today's figures, but certainly a great deal more.)" In discussing the law of consecration with his class, "the students decided to find out how many families' interest payments on their home loans supported what the students called the 'excess reimbursement' of the three executives. They theorized that the bankers should each earn a yearly salary of between $80,000 and $100,000. Many of my students stated they did not think they would ever make that much in a year, but they wanted to overcompensate the bankers rather than undercompensate them." If you're one of the middle- or upper-class American Mormons that Wilcox is talking to, and you have a mortgage on a typical suburban home, then you can guess where this is going: "Because I knew roughly the amount of interest each family in my neighborhood paid to finance their mortgages, we divided that amount into the excess payment figure. The entire interest payments of more than 130 families were going to support the excess salaries of three individuals. I think we were all a little shocked by the numbers" (p. 185). Indeed!

Does Wilcox say the scriptures call for the confiscation of that "excess payment"? No. Does he say that there is no possible way someone who takes seriously the principles of consecration ought to earn that "excess"? No. What he does say, though, is colored by the economic downturn which soon visited that area, and the many neighbors of his who lost their homes to foreclosure: "We are asked by the Lord to operate our stewardships as best we can and then do all the good we can with what remains after our own, generally basic needs are met" (p. 186). What do we need to fulfill our own and our family's needs? What do we need to avoid the pride and temptations of success? What can we let go of, and dedicate to our fellow man?

They aren't impossible questions to ask oneself, or to answer. We have examples of members of the church who have. Lowell Bennion--whom President Hinckley praised as a man with such good enough priorities that he never drove a car nearly as nice any of those in the parking lot at his own funeral--saw it as very simple: "Learn to like what doesn't cost much....Learn to like plain food, plain service, plain cooking....Learn to like gardening, puttering around the house and fixing things....Learn to keep your wants simple and refuse to be controlled by the likes and dislikes of others." Beyond that? Give it away. Last year, Ronan shared with us the story of an Oxford professor who pledged to give away all of his income over about $30,000 a year. Ronan allowed that he probably could not do that--but that, given his family's needs, perhaps he could limit himself to $75,000, setting aside the rest to doing good. It reminded me of a conversation Melissa and I had while driving up Provo Canyon, one autumn day soon after we were married in 1993. We agreed that, honestly, we couldn't understand why any typical family--allowing for all sorts of extenuating circumstances, of course--would ever need more than $60,000 a year. Now, 17 years later, we recognize we were a little naive about our own needs, desires, and--yes--temptations. But hopefully not too naive. Wilcox and his students overcompensated the bankers with $100,000 a year, and yet were still able to do enormous good with the remainder. Wilcox, clearly, wants us American Mormons to think about our own "remainders," and be willing to let it go. Are their legitimate debates about how we should let it go, and where it should go to? Absolutely. But to get to the point of asking such questions will mean, I think, that we will have answered the earlier and more important ones correctly, and thus are on the right path of negotiating our peace and prosperity in the way Elder Ballard hoped we would.


Stephen said...

I'm amazed no one cross posted comments here.

Aloysius said...

It would be a big help for you RAF. It would help you end the perpetual envy that seems to be the recurring theme of your life.

Do try to earn more so you can give more away (or at at least have it confiscated). A man as smart as you are should be supporting at least 5-10 families not just one or one and a half.