Saturday, January 25, 2020

Time and Chance (20)

One thing I have neglected to point out over the last two weeks of posts in this series is that the first seven verses of chapter 5 of Ecclesiastes are different from everything that has come before them. They are the very first commands we have encountered in the Preacher’s writing.

Everything up to this point has been description; the Preacher looking around at his world and telling us what he observes in the absence of divine revelation, most of which he finds disappointing and confusing. But chapter 5 commences with a short series of what we might call prescriptions. The Preacher has actually begun to issue the occasional instruction. “Guard your steps,” he says. “Be not rash with your mouth. Let your words be few. Do not delay in fulfilling your vows.”

Such language is common in scripture’s wisdom literature, but not quite so common in Ecclesiastes. The Preacher will not do a whole lot of this, so we should probably take note when he does.

Meanwhile, back to chapter 5.

Ecclesiastes 5:8-9  Producers and Bureaucrats

Big Bugs and Little Bugs
“If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.”
Two sentences in English, the first of which is quite straightforward, and the thrust of which is that the uneven battle for resources between labor and management is to blame for many of the injustices and abuses we observe in government. Moreover, the biggest corporations in existence today wield more power, employ more people and handle billions more dollars than many sovereign states. Thus, some of the same oppressive tendencies as have plagued governments throughout human history may now be readily observed in the business world.

Most readers would agree with the Preacher. “Big bugs have little bugs upon their backs to bite them. Little bugs have lesser bugs, and so ad infinitum.” Every manager at every level takes a piece of the action, and the guy whose work product funds the entire apparatus is the poor chap at the bottom of the pile: the taxpayer, the hardworking farmer, miner, lumberjack, textile worker, wordsmith ... you name it, basically anyone whose job is hands-on production. In governance and business, the labor of actual producers must not only cover their own costs, but also the living expenses of every manager, marketer, lawyer, trainer, secretary, clerk, accountant, researcher, analyst, consultant, administrative assistant, human resources person — every single non-production person who makes their living from the enterprise.

In short, maintaining bureaucracies costs money. Big money.

Squeezing the Little Guy

Now, to the extent that these non-production roles are a necessary part of getting the work product to the public, collecting the proceeds therefrom, or in somehow multiplying its value, we consider their expenses worthwhile. However, bureaucracies have a tendency to bloat massively over time and to take on all manner of unnecessary and even counterproductive functions. There are exceptions, but higher-level administrators also tend to earn orders of magnitude more than mere employees. Sometimes what they contribute to the bottom line makes this a worthwhile investment. In many cases it does not. Either way, if the size, focus and competency of a bureaucracy are not diligently monitored, the costs of feeding the ever-expanding machine that exists to facilitate production eventually becomes vastly greater than the revenue from what can be produced, which is one reason many companies and governments operate at a massive deficit, and some go bankrupt.

The way institutions tend to deal with this problem is by squeezing the guy at the bottom. Work harder. Gather your own straw for bricks. Make the product more cheaply, and more funds may be diverted elsewhere. Result: oppression. It’s tough enough to be a production worker in many industries without the constant pressure of layoffs, belt-tightening, wage reductions, being forced to use dangerous or obsolete equipment, or earning wages that don’t remotely keep pace with the actual cost of living. And if we find such conditions oppressive, imagine how bad things could get 3,000 years ago, before unions, rights movements and so on.

An Imbalance that Remains

I am using a very modern illustration of a very old problem, and as stressful and unpleasant as things can become for the modern producer of goods or services, at least nobody in management is wielding a whip. As corrupt as North American bureaucracies have become, at least you do not have to openly bribe people at every level just to get the most basic things done. Moreover, when we use the word “slavery” to describe our modern job experience, it is a mere metaphor, and one that does no small injustice to the word.

All the same, despite modern improvements in the conditions affecting many laborers, the tendency toward huge imbalances between the size and power of bureaucracies and the producers they oversee remains a problem in need of addressing. In all probability it is part of the human condition, to be remedied once and for all only by the return of Christ.

At any rate, that part of the passage is straightforward. Any difficulties we have in understanding the thrust of the Preacher’s point here revolve around our interpretation of the second sentence. If we go with the consensus of translators, one of two things is being said.

A Numbers Problem

First, it is possible the Preacher is saying something like “Everyone profits from the earth, all the way up to and including the king himself.” The KJV, NKJV, NIV and even the New Living Translation go this way. If this is the case, the Preacher is attempting to explain the problem rather than addressing it. In effect, he is arguing that the sheer number of people involved in managing is itself the root cause of oppression.

The difficulty with that interpretation is that it simply isn’t a very good explanation for sin. That all profit in some measure from production does not obligate the various parts of the system to behave malignantly toward the producers or to act in a self-interested way. That is a different problem. A larger “machine” indeed takes more resources to service, but so long as these resources are allocated fairly and in proportion to the benefits provided by the administrative apparatus, all is well and good.

For example, a human resources department that consistently contributed to worker happiness would be a reasonable item to factor into the company budget. Unfortunately, what tends to happen is that human resources personnel generate all sorts of new rules and regulations in order to justify their existence. These result in dozens of new procedural violations, all of which can only be addressed by HR. Every minor grievance between employees then becomes a giant, man-hour-consuming production involving extensive documentation, discussion, follow-up and ongoing counselling. It is these sorts of well-meaning exercises that tend to become oppressive, because the cost of engaging in them is wildly disproportionate to their value to the producers. It is much like the divorce lawyer who manages to get you the living room suite you were seeking from your spouse at the cost of ten times its worth in legal fees.

This is not unique to HR departments. Every administrative area within a corporation or government is perpetually subject to this sort of “mission creep”.

The “everybody profits” interpretation is certainly possible, but I find it weaker than the alternative.

A Human Nature Problem

The second possible view is that the Preacher may be saying something like this: “A king who cultivates the fields is an advantage to the land.” This is the position taken by the translators of the NASB, ESV and even the Jubilee Bible 2000, which reads, “There is higher authority in all of the things of the earth, but he who serves the field is king.”

I like that one a lot, not least because it appears to suggest that not all labor needs to become oppressive. It correctly identifies the problem as moral rather than merely technical. It also offers a management model which mimics the example of the Lord Jesus himself, and follows the basic principles of church leadership his apostles taught throughout the New Testament. It views managers as stewards, shepherds and caregivers rather than rulers and lords.

When a ruler concentrates on the needs of his workers, and puts in place policies that are geared toward helping them to do their jobs effectively in partnership with management rather than in perpetual conflict with it, there is great benefit for all. As the wise older counselors who had advised his father told Solomon’s son Rehoboam, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.”

Or as the Lord Jesus said to his disciples, “Who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”

God’s solution to the never-ending struggle between labor and management is ... better management.


  1. Interesting, but in reality there are deliberately different approaches to management and labor relations. E.g., in Germany the model is one of cooperation where management and unions work together to solve production and other problems. In the USA the working relationship has traditionally been adversarial. My feeling is that the latter is in the interest of corrupt union bosses since it makes them less dispensable in having to deal with hostile management.

    1. Interesting. If so, then the US model serves to illustrate what the Preacher is saying, while the German model reminds us there are better ways to do things. But I suspect if we lived in Germany, we might find things about German labor-management relations that are less than optimal too.