Beware of Big Red Elephants in Tights

elephant-158555_640Among news commentators throughout the West, there is the constant complaint that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Numerous books and articles are quick to criticize the present economic system as the cause of these ills. They claim capital tends to concentrate indefinitely and propose a tax-the-rich solution as the only real means to combat economic inequality.

In all this criticism of economic inequality, there is a strange silence surrounding an economic system that escapes the sharp gaze of academia and liberal pundits. No one seems …or wants … to notice a strange, big, red elephant or rather a herd of such elephants firmly established in the middle of the room. If indeed the wealth gap is a problem, these elephants should be the natural objects of attention.

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These big red elephants are, of course, the socialist and communist governments that still shamefully operate in so many countries throughout the world. The most obvious cases are countries like Cuba, Zimbabwe and North Korea that are ruled by iron-fisted ideologues and their lackeys. These live in luxury while the oppressed population suffers in abject poverty and oppression. The wealth gap found in these countries is an immense and yawning chasm.

But there is another, less obvious, variety of big red elephant. This one might be described as the same kind of red elephant dressed in tights, as if to hide the massive animal from view.

These elephants in tights are those officially communist nations like China and Vietnam which have liberalized certain restraints and accepted Western investment dollars. They have put on capitalist trappings to hide the monstrous, unjust socialist system that remains in place.

What most people do not realize is that all these red elephants in tights tend to concentrate wealth much, much more than Western economies. Take, for example, the case of communist China, where the wealth gap is immense. In their book, The Fourth Revolution, authors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge report that the published wealth of the fifty richest members of Beijing’s National People’s Congress is $95 billion. This is nearly sixty times the combined wealth of the fifty richest members of America’s Congress.

Such rich individuals are not just businessmen who have profited from Western economic reforms. No, they are all cadres controlled and favored by the Chinese Communist Party. Micklethwait and Woodridge report that the Party has a file on everyone, monitors the careers of all major players and determines and frequently rotates all senior figures in corporate China. All these big players are paid or paid off fabulously while China is notorious for its cheap and slave labor and appalling working conditions.

This huge wealth gap escapes the criticism of Western pundits and analysts. There is no talk about wealth inequality in China or Vietnam. In fact, there is often praise for the big red elephant in tights. New York Times columnist and Nobel Lauriat Thomas Friedman, for example, wrote: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.”

Just and proportional wealth inequality helps an economy and nation to prosper. Unjust Subscription8.11and disproportional wealth gaps like that in red elephant countries do the contrary. Undoubtedly, Western economies have their problems in this regard which need to be addressed. However, it is time to stop the war on just inequality. The fact is that socialist and communist governments are the primary unjust concentrators of wealth in the world today. It is time to start looking at the big red elephants in the room. It is especially time to beware of the big red elephants in tights.

The Difference Between a Job and Work

The Difference Between a Job and WorkIt is interesting to note the different perceptions of how people perceive what they do for a living. Finance professor Bernard Lietaer makes the distinction by noting the original meanings of the words ‘job’ and ‘work.’ He writes:

Subscription8.11The word ‘Job’ is recent; it dates from the Industrial Revolution. It was initially defined as a ‘pile of things to be done’; or even more precisely ‘something done for hire with a view of monetary profit.’

Work’, in contrast, is a very old word. Its first appearance in English dates from the Aelfric Homilies (11th century): ‘That work was begun under God’s will.’ It still has that connotation when referring to a ‘work of Love’, a ‘work of Art’, a ‘work of Mercy’. (quoted from The Future of Money: A New Way to Create Wealth, Work, and a Wiser World, Century, London, 2001, p. 126)

Interview with Dr. Samuel Gregg: “Culture Drives History, Societies and Economic Life”

Interview With Dr Sam Gregg--v2Dr. Samuel Gregg is director of research at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He has authored several books including Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and America’s Future, and most recently Tea Party Catholic. Dr. Gregg took some time out of his busy schedule to give a short exclusive interview for the Return to Order website blog.

John Horvat: I have had the great pleasure of reading several of your books on economics. I suppose my first question is: how did you end up in the middle of the “dismal science?”

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Dr. Gregg: I did some economic history as an undergraduate and for my graduate study, but it was really through studying natural law philosophy when doing my doctorate that I came to enter into some of the deeper background questions about the strengths and weaknesses of economics and economies. I was also very interested in the relationship between economics and culture – the latter being understood as the choices, beliefs, actions, values, and institutions that shape a society, including its economic arrangements. The mathematical dimension of economics has its place, but also some rather important limits, and shouldn’t be given more significance than it otherwise warrants. In that regard, I found the work of Wilhelm Röpke – the German economist who was one of the architects of the German economic miracle after 1945 – especially instructive. I wrote a book about Röpke in which I tried to describe the type of political economy that Röpke sought to promote in order to try and ensure the growth of forms of economic life undergirded by defensible moral commitments. Not only was he a fierce critic of Keynes, Keynesianism and the welfare state, but Röpke also understood that the critique of such thinkers, thought and forms of political economy had to be as much moral as economic. Röpke was equally comfortable talking about the finer points of monetary theory as he was with discussing theologians like Aquinas or historians such as Thucydides. We need more people like that discussing, thinking and writing about economic subjects.

John Horvat: In your book, Becoming Europe, you make the connection between economics and culture, and also what you call “economic culture.” Why are these connections so important?

Dr. Gregg: Many economists make the mistake of thinking that economics is a more-or-less self-sufficient discipline. But economies are part of a wider set of values and institutions (what I call culture), and can’t be understood outside these realities. Economics that is not attentive to these realities ends up in a type of echo-chamber. Just look at most economics journals: they are full of algebra! It’s part of the scientism mentality – the mistake of thinking that the only way we can know truth is through empirical and positivist methods, and that the only truth that can be known is that which is measurable. Well, reason isn’t measurable, but does anyone doubt it exists?

In any event, the more I studied economic subjects, the more convinced I became that while economic factors such as incentives matter in explaining why some economies prosper and others don’t, it’s culture that drives history, societies and economic life. If you want to know why, for instance, Australia and Argentina started the twentieth century as among the wealthiest nations on the planet (in terms of GDP per capita), and why Australia is still an economic success while Argentina is now an economic disaster, it’s not just the result of good and bad economic policies. It’s also about the differing economic cultures that have prevailed in these societies.

John Horvat: On the other side of the spectrum, the leftist French economist Thomas Piketty who just wrote the bestselling book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, makes a similar claim that social sciences are important to economics. How does your view differ from his?

Dr. Gregg: I’m not so sure that Piketty is as interested in the relevance of social sciences to economics as some imagine. In terms of values, his book seems quite fixated with one value: equality, and not so much equality in dignity, but equality as sameness. To tell you the truth, I really don’t understand the fuss. His prescriptions for tackling our problems are essentially old-fashioned social democracy. Piketty is an accomplished economist and his argument has certainly provoked plenty of debates, but it’s unclear to me that he’s doing anything that’s even close to the great work that has been done by outstanding institutional economists such as Douglass North and Edmund Phelps.

John Horvat: I notice that you often quote Saint Thomas Aquinas. How relevant is he to the economic issues being debated today?

Dr. Gregg: Aquinas , I often say, is relevant to every question! But his relevance, I would argue, to economics, economic policy, economic institutions and economic culture is his analysis of human choice and human action and the way it affects the chooser as well as the society in which the chooser lives. Moreover, Aquinas actually believes in free will. And we need to keep in mind that most people today in the academy don’t. They’re basically soft-determinists or hard-determinists. It’s very hard to find people who believe in free will – in the fullest sense of the term – outside the ranks of orthodox (small “o”) Christians and Jews as well as natural law circles. That confidence in the truth of free will makes every difference in the world – including in the way we think about economics.

John Horvat: To what extent are we “becoming Europe” economically today? What are the prospects for the future?

Dr. Gregg: Parts of America are already Europe: witness the states of California, New York and Illinois. There are aspects of what Alexis de Tocqueville called soft despotism – which is a major cause of Western Europe’s problems – in the American body-politic. That said, I think that America retains a capacity to reverse this trend, not least of all because of the principles of the Founding Fathers that serve as a standard for us to judge whether America is being faithful or not to those principles. The further down the path of soft despotism America goes, the harder it will be to reverse direction. But it isn’t impossible.

John Horvat: What would you say is the greatest threat to the American economy today?

Dr. Gregg: There are many threats, but perhaps the most significant is an Subscription11apparent unwillingness on the part of much of the citizenry to face up to some of the enormous economic challenges facing the United States. Many Americans will talk about the need to reduce, for instance, subsidies – until it comes to the congressional seat or senate seat in which they just happen to live! Until enough American citizens are willing to think about, but also act upon, these broader problems, most politicians won’t do anything. There are exceptions to that rule about political leaders – but not many, especially in democratic systems.

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Fostering an Organic Society: The Value of Every Person

Fostering an Organic Society:  The Value of Every PersonExcerpt from the talk, “Fostering an Organic Society: Principles and Examples” given by James Bascom at the 2013 TFP National Conference on October 27, 2013

The first principle is that within every man there are potentialities that must be developed. Every man is born with an enormous variety of qualities, propensities, and strengths that seek to be realized to their fullest. We possess these potentialities to such a degree that even if we attain sanctity we cannot possibly realize them all. Society should encourage man to turn his potential into action and provide him with abundant means to do so. Thus souls will become ever more perfect in the image of God.

Man is not just a consumer. Rather he is a creature of God with intelligence and free will who is in search of moral, spiritual, and social perfection. In order to attain this perfection, man needs the help of others in society.

To return to our organism metaphor, each man is like an individual cell in a body. Each cell is beautiful and unique. But it needs the other tissues and organs in the body not only to survive, but to develop itself to its fullest and fulfill the mission written in its DNA.

Col. RipleyTake Colonel John Ripley for example. He was a man of exceptional abilities. He had a rare ability to lead other men in battle. He practiced great bravery, strength, endurance, virtue, and moral courage, both on and off the battlefield. Now if he had spent his life as a mountain man in the hills of southern Virginia, could he have developed himself into the hero we all know? Without human society, without his family, the Marine Corps, the Naval Academy, and above all his Faith, he would not have had the occasion to develop his many virtues and qualities that we admire so much.

The basic and most important society for helping man develop his potential is the family. But the modern concept of the family is very different from the medieval, organic conception. Most people today imagine the nuclear family to be the ideal family, that is, father, mother and perhaps a few children. This is the family reduced to an absolute minimum. The true family that existed in the Middle Ages all the way until the twentieth century consisted of the father and mother with their numerous children as well as the extended family: cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, and grandparents. The traditional family all lived under the same roof or very close together in the same village or city, not spread out across the country like today.

The family did not consist only of those who were currently living. Rather, the family was seen as a lineage, extending from the past into the present with a view into the future. Every social class in society had lineages, from the royal family down to the simplest peasant family, and many families had lineages extending back centuries.

There were families of traders, carpenters, composers, stone masons, farmers, vintners, artists, scholars, scientists, and sailors. Each family distilled its qualities and unique gifts over the generations, and the children who were born into them learned the family profession from birth.

A beautiful example of the development of potential in the individual and in a family is the story of the Beam family of Kentucky, arguably the most important family in the production of Kentucky bourbon.

Jacob Beam immigrated to the United States from Germany and started distilling whisky in 1788. He would go on to teach his son everything he knew about making bourbon, and they in turn passed on the knowledge to their sons and grandsons. The dynasty of Beam distillers and their artistry have shaped the industry so much they could very well be considered the aristocracy of the bourbon industry.

When Mr. Norman Fulkerson toured the Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky, his tour guide was Erica Boone, an eighth generation descendant of Jacob Beam. She explained the ins and outs of the distillery with an uncommon enthusiasm.

I love what I do,” Erica admitted. “I am not just an employee; I am a member of the family…” Her words trailed off as she begged pardon for “getting teary eyed.” When she regained her composure, Mr. Fulkerson asked “Why the tears?”

It’s the heritage,” she responded. “You have no idea what it means to be able to trace your roots back 200 years. It gives such a sense of self-awareness.”

How different young people are today. They believe the egalitarian myth Subscription8.11that everybody should go to university, regardless of family history or personal ability. They frequently ignore the traditional occupation of their family. As a result, they wander through life unsure of themselves and their calling, often with enormous student debt and a degree that corresponds little to their real talents. According to the Washington Post, only 27% of college graduates today have a job directly related to their major. At Penn State University, 80 percent of freshmen — even those who have declared a major — say they are uncertain about their major, and half will change their minds after they declare.

Natural Law is the Same Everywhere, and Binds All Men in All Times

Freedom Is Not ChoiceAmerican law’s attachment to higher law dates back before independence as can be seen in this reference from renowned English jurist Sir William Blackstone: “This law of nature, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original” (Commentaries on the Laws of England [Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1765], 1:41).

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Big Can Also Be Beautiful

Fr. TrigilioOur ability to know things beyond the local and the small leads us to affirm that there can also be proportion in bigness. We must, of course, reject monstrous proportions. Yet it cannot be denied that nature does give us as examples huge mountains, great plains, or immense oceans that convey the idea of a proportional vastness that delights yet does not disorient us.

Likewise, we must consider that economic endeavors can also convey the idea of greatness and grandeur without disorienting and disturbing an economy. We must reject the egalitarian notion that all men are equal in their abilities to deal with economy or governing and must therefore be limited to small economic or governing units. Some men have great capacity to deal with multitudes of people—as can be seen in the case of the popes or great rulers. Still others can manage big, and even very big, enterprises with ability and skill. Limiting such figures to small plots of property wastes their qualities and stifles their desires to perfect their nature. If they develop their abilities in due proportion and temperance, we do not hesitate to affirm that big can also be beautiful.

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Subscription8.11(The above is an except from the book, Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society—Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here and Where We Need to Go.)


Six Ways to Challenge Our Materialism

Sainte-Chapelle_upper_chapel copyMaterialism holds that the only reality is that which we can physically perceive. All other considerations are subjective and unimportant. Such a perspective is a distortion of reality.

The spiritual realities also have a major and even greater role in the lives of men. Witness how the beautiful churches and cathedrals that were the centerpieces of almost every town throughout Europe attest to how the people placed spiritual values foremost in their lives and at the center of their communities. Merchants and businesses provided quality goods and kept prices reasonable because of their desire to please God, and in so doing sidestepping the need for massive government regulations or codes.

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We became materialist because the Industrial Revolution introduced a new paradigm that embraced and reinforced concepts such as:

1.To have and to satisfy material desires are the principle concerns of our lives.

2. Self denial and temperance are not virtues. Instead, consumerism and spending are necessary and righteous means to keep a healthy and prosperous economy.

3. Beautification and customization to suit personal tastes are wasteful and to be avoided, while utility and standardization are now virtuous attributes.

4. Rarity, elegance, and beauty as measures of value are to be replaced by notions that true value is found in what is common, mundane and utilitarian.

5. Virtues are more attune to physical well being not related to the spiritual or metaphysical.

6. Good and evil are not absolutes, but defined by men. That which feels good, is good, and should not be constrained by outdated religious dogma or tradition. We are to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

7. Reliance on God, and fear of God, are indicators of immaturity and ignorance.

Interestingly, many prominent eighteenth century philosophers warned that this newa_great_sadness_over_the_nation paradigm would lead to a decadence of society, and ultimately herd the masses into servitude. They warned that replacing clearly defined, unchanging biblical standards of morality and civility with a code based on consumption and self-centeredness would leave the people feeling frustrated, brutalized, disappointed and empty.

Another consequence of materialism is a consuming desire to establish a material and earthly paradise. Big business used mass advertising to capitalize on this artificial desire by proposing a mythical reality that could rival Eden. Suffering, which is a tool God uses to bring His people closer to Him, was to be avoided as all cost. Advertisers promised a virtual paradise on Earth and an end to all suffering. Feeling pain? Take a pill. Feeling unhappy? Buy a toy.

Eventually, the masses began to rely on the media to tell them what their desires should be. People were trained to feel guilt if they weren’t buying the latest and greatest gizmos, or if they allowed their neighbors and friends to have something “better” than they themselves had. They also came to rely upon government and entitlements to supply them with these new needs.

As a result, people today generally desire to remain infantile, in a child-like state, whereSubscription8.11 everything is taken care of. They want to be told what to do instead of learning to be responsible for themselves or stewards of what God has placed on this Earth. We have come to embrace what is fake – whether it be virtual game worlds, Hollywood models, or the accumulation of toys and material distractions. The reality of suffering is ignored, avoided, denied and distained. We have come to believe in a false reality that paradise on Earth can be achieved.

Action Steps:

1. Be cognizant of how advertising is deceiving our perception of reality, and point it out to others.

2. Do not embrace this new materialistic morality, but remain stalwart and convinced of the importance of those things that are spiritual.

3. Stand apart from those that have bought into materialism by living up to the higher standards that acknowledge the spiritual need for all that is good, true and beautiful.

4. Do more than just take personal responsibility for our actions, expect it from others.

5. Promote the concepts of reward and punishment as something normal and desirable.

6. Embrace suffering, instead of fleeing from it or denying it. Use it to learn patience and allow it to draw you closer to God.

7. Encourage the people who suffer around us. Be a listening and sympathetic ear to their problems. Explain and endorse the redemptive effects of suffering.

Man Does Not Live by Cars Alone


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What Does Saint Thomas Say About Immigration?

e3000In looking at the debate over immigration, it is almost automatically assumed that the Church’s position is one of unconditional charity toward those who enter the nation, legally or illegally.

However, is this the case? What does the Bible say about immigration? What do Church doctors and theologians say? Above all, what does the greatest of doctors, Saint Thomas Aquinas, say about immigration? Does his opinion offer some insights to the burning issues now shaking the nation and blurring the national borders?

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Immigration is a modern problem and so some might think that the medieval Saint Thomas would have no opinion about the problem. And yet, he does. One has only to look in his masterpiece, the Summa Theologica, in the second part of the first part, question 105, article 3 (I-II, Q. 105, Art. 3). There one finds his analysis based on biblical insights that can add to the national debate. They are entirely applicable to the present.

Saint Thomas: “Man’s relations with foreigners are twofold: peaceful, and hostile: and in directing both kinds of relation the Law contained suitable precepts.”

Commentary: In making this affirmation, Saint Thomas affirms that not all immigrants are equal. Every nation has the right to decide which immigrants are beneficial, that is, “peaceful,” to the common good. As a matter of self-defense, the State can reject those criminal elements, traitors, enemies and others who it deems harmful or “hostile” to its citizens.

The second thing he affirms is that the manner of dealing with immigration is determined by law in the cases of both beneficial and “hostile” immigration. The State has the right and duty to apply its law.

Saint Thomas: “For the Jews were offered three opportunities of peaceful relations with foreigners. First, when foreigners passed through their land as travelers. Secondly, when they came to dwell in their land as newcomers. And in both these respects the Law made kind provision in its precepts: for it is written (Exodus 22:21): ’Thou shalt not molest a stranger [advenam]’; and again (Exodus 22:9): ’Thou shalt not molest a stranger [peregrino].’”

Commentary: Here Saint Thomas acknowledges the fact that others will want to come to visit or even stay in the land for some time. Such foreigners deserved to be treated with charity, respect and courtesy, which is due to any human of good will. In these cases, the law can and should protect foreigners from being badly treated or molested.

Saint Thomas: “Thirdly, when any foreigners wished to be admitted entirely to their fellowship and mode of worship. With regard to these a certain order was observed. For they were not at once admitted to citizenship: just as it was law with some nations that no one was deemed a citizen except after two or three generations, as the Philosopher says (Polit. iii, 1).”

Commentary: Saint Thomas recognizes that there will be those who will want to stay and become citizens of the lands they visit. However, he sets as the first condition for acceptance a desire to integrate fully into what would today be considered the culture and life of the nation.

A second condition is that the granting of citizenship would not be immediate. The integration process takes time. People need to adapt themselves to the nation. He quotes the philosopher Aristotle as saying this process was once deemed to take two or three generations. Saint Thomas himself does not give a timeframe for this integration, but he does admit that it can take a long time.

Saint Thomas: “The reason for this was that if foreigners were allowed to meddle with the affairs of a nation as soon as they settled down in its midst, many dangers might occur, since the foreigners not yet having the common good firmly at heart might attempt something hurtful to the people.”

Commentary: The common sense of Saint Thomas is certainly not politically correct but it is logical. The theologian notes that living in a nation is a complex thing. It takes time to know the issues affecting the nation. Those familiar with the long history of their nation are in the best position to make the long-term decisions about its future. It is harmful and unjust to put the future of a place in the hands of those recently arrived, who, although through no fault of their own, have little idea of what is happening or has happened in the nation. Such a policy could lead to the destruction of the nation.

As an illustration of this point, Saint Thomas later notes that the Jewish people did not treat all nations equally since those nations closer to them were more quickly integrated into the population than those who were not as close. Some hostile peoples were not to be admitted at all into full fellowship due to their enmity toward the Jewish people.

Saint Thomas: “Nevertheless it was possible by dispensation for a man to be admitted to citizenship on account of some act of virtue: thus it is related (Judith 14:6) that Achior, the captain of the children of Ammon, ‘was joined to the people of Israel, with all the succession of his kindred.’”

Commentary: That is to say, the rules were not rigid. There were exceptions that were granted based on the circumstances. However, such exceptions were not arbitrary but always had in mind the common good. The example of Achior describes the citizenship bestowed upon the captain and his children for the good services rendered to the nation.

* * *

These are some of the thoughts of Saint Thomas Aquinas on the matter of immigration based on biblical principles. It is clear that immigration must have two things in mind: the first is the nation’s unity; and the second is the common good.

Immigration should have as its goal integration, not disintegration or segregation. The immigrant should not only desire to assume the benefits but the responsibilities of joining into the full fellowship of the nation. By becoming a citizen, a person becomes part of a broad family over the long term and not a shareholder in a joint stock company seeking only short-term self-interest.

Secondly, Saint Thomas teaches that immigration must have in mind the common good; it cannot destroy or overwhelm a nation.

This explains why so many Americans experience uneasiness caused by massive and disproportional immigration. Such policy artificially introduces a situation that destroys common points of unity and overwhelms the ability of a society to absorb new elements organically into a unified culture. The common good is no longer considered.

A proportional immigration has always been a healthy development in a society since itSubscription11 injects new life and qualities into a social body. But when it loses that proportion and undermines the purpose of the State, it threatens the well-being of the nation.

When this happens, the nation would do well to follow the advice of Saint Thomas Aquinas and biblical principles. The nation must practice justice and charity towards all, including foreigners, but it must above all safeguard the common good and its unity, without which no country can long endure.

(This posting is a development of a paragraph and footnote from the book, Return to Order. Those who want to post or publish this article can do so as long as the credit is given to the Return to Order website and a link is made.)

Leaving Problems Behind copy“The philosopher George Santayana once observed that Americans don’t solve problems, they leave them behind. If there’s an idea they don’t like, they don’t bother refuting it, they simply talk about something else, and the original idea dies from inattention. If a situation bothers them, they leave it in the past” (David Brooks, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense [New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004], 47).






Dealing With the Sterilization of Time

How the Masses Were CreatedOne of the effects of today’s hurried pace of life is that time itself loses meaning. Inside our rushed schedules, we experience the double sensation of having no time to do anything and doing nothing with our time.

Without using time to reflect upon and interpret experiences, even the most organized life can become a jumble of insignificant events, passive entertainment, and mechanical routines. It is something Richard Stivers calls the “sterilization of time”: “When time loses its meaning—the memory of significant events and transformations within a narrative framework—it becomes the space within which we produce and consume as much as possible.”1

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Within this paradox where we have no time yet waste so much time, we experience theSubscription8.11 boredom, exhaustion, and psychological stress that leads so many to conclude that there is nothing beyond the aimless flux of immediate experience.

(The above selection is an adaptation of a passage from Return to Order)



1. Stivers, Culture of Cynicism, 172.