Object Lessons

The new book for my spirituality book club is Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson. I finished the second chapter this morning and am trying to figure out whether the book is fitting for the spirituality aspect of the club or if it is one more example of my sometimes-held belief that everything is spiritual. This second chapter is about the economy and why it ran into a mega-snag in 2008 and why the government did what it did (not necessarily defending it, but explaining it). I am proud to announce that I actually grasped a few things. If you could see my notes on the borders of the book, you would understand that my way of grasping concepts like national or international economy is to look at my own household economy.

I suppose you might call my practice reductionism. It began back when Ronald Reagan was running for president. I remember seeing him on television giving a speech, perhaps in the context of a debate. He was trying to explain national economics to potential voters and he pulled out his wallet to make his point that you can only spend what you have. I knew I was going to vote for him right then and there. His simplifying didn’t even have to be true. I was won over by his effort to make a complex idea understandable to the simple…like me.

Struggling with graphs and vocabulary this morning, I yearned for Reagan’s simplicity. Maybe a kindergarten teacher could do this. She could use wooden blocks of various colors and sizes and stack these up in various configurations and then knock down the towers like a four-year-old does to show the fragility of some economic systems.

A few years ago I helped put on a “poverty meal”, a tool to educate people about the ratio of rich to poor and middle class in between. The food served was symbolic of this ratio. We dished up chicken dinners to a very small percentage of guests representing the rich, a bowl of soup and a couple of crackers to another percentage representing the middle class, and a small bowl of plain white rice to those representing the poor. I had been part of this same exercise years ago and some guests received nothing and were pushed out of line by people dressed in military garb and mustaches. All guests payed the same for their meal. I thought it was a great teaching exercise.

A nun I knew showed up and set up a table with a number of labeled jars that represented the percentage of our taxes that are spent on various activities by the federal government. I noted that a very large percentage – over 50% – went into the military jar and only a couple of pennies into the one labeled “education”.

I loved all of these, Reagan’s wallet, the “poverty meal”, and the nun’s penny jars. I love learning but I do best when my teachers make an effort to bring things down to my level.

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