When Our Systems Fail: the Wall Street Melt-Down
Isaiah 58:1-12 (excerpt)
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!Announce to my people their sins.
Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness…
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, [and] to let the oppressed go free..?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?...
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom be like the noonday… you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
It was three months before the current economic melt-down that we decided to focus on the rich and complicated theme of “failing” in October, and I confess that originally I was thinking about a different angle on that theme for this particular Sunday. But the irony of watching our economic systems fail so spectacularly just in time for this month’s theme was not wasted on me. And it seemed a bit peculiar to come to worship services each Sunday but not mention the fact that all around us throughout the week, these tectonic shifts have been underway.
The peril inherent in choosing to speak about the economic crisis today is that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I am in good company of course: no one knows what they’re talking about right now, including the most respected economists and the most responsible politicians. There is nothing even close to consensus on what should be done, how it should be done or how long it’s going to take to work. There is no clear understanding of when and how the worst of the impact will be felt by ordinary working people.
For those of us on the sidelines instead of pacing the halls of power, it feels a little as though we’re watching a distant avalanche rolling down the mountain. We know it’s heading our way and we know it’s going to leave tremendous destruction behind, but right now, though it’s frightening, it is also perversely fascinating to watch. We don’t yet know what’s happening. We don’t know where the bottom will finally be in the stock market, we don’t know how the consequences will ripple through the world and eventually sweep down on us, and we don’t know what exactly should be done about it.
But we do know that in the large systems around us right now what we’re witnessing is failure, and it’s on lots of different levels. On the smallest level is the failure of banks and other financial businesses as they go bankrupt, are bought out by competitors or are shored up by the federal government. Way beyond this is the colossal failure of deregulation, as the consequences of unchecked capitalism become clear even to its most ardent defenders.
We are witnessing failure through the abject abandonment of principles, as so many of the same fierce advocates of a “free market” without government interference have suddenly demanded that the government save them – socializing the risk, as some have pointed out, while still trying to make sure the profits are private. We are witnessing the failure of our government to do its most basic job, which is to support and protect its citizens. Democrats and Republicans alike have voted over and over again for the policies that encouraged high risk for the many and high profit for the very few. Both parties have taken greedy advantage of a broken system that allows vast amounts of private money to flood into campaign coffers. It should be no surprise then that money has tilted things toward profit and away from people.
And in all of this taken together, we are witnessing a moral failure, a triumph of greed over goodness and of radical self-interest over the community.
What can we do about these many levels of failure, besides stand on the sidelines and watch the avalanche roll down? Since I’m raising the question in a worship service, it’s probably clear that I believe there’s room for a religious response. Religion has to do with what we hold to be of ultimate value. The purpose of our faith is to remind us again and again that we are children of Holiness, that there is more to our lives than buying and selling, that who we are and how we live matter, sometimes in ways we can see but sometimes in ways that are beyond our ken. In times of crisis, what we do matters more than ever. So despite my caveat that we don’t yet know what we’re talking about, there are some things I think we can do, particularly as people grounded in our liberal faith.
The first thing we can do is pay attention. One of the most dangerous dimensions of crisis is that some very real problems can be manipulated in ways that distract us from the heart of the matter and from the best solutions. When we were told that a completely blank check had to be signed over to the Secretary of the Treasury for seven hundred billion dollars, there was a frightening large number of people ready to go along. Why? Because we were told that the economy would collapse if we didn’t do it, immediately, without any proper chance to think about it. That moment in history already seems long ago because events have moved so swiftly since then, but it highlights the critical need for us to be alert to the truth and falsehood of what we are told.
The truth goes beyond panicky statements and demands, into the heart of the conflicting world views that might guide us. What is it that is even meant by “the economy”, for instance? And how much of it do we actually want to save? In an interview last summer with Orion Magazine, Dr. Gus Speth, Dean of Yale’s School of Forestry, said: “Capitalism is a growth machine. What it really cares about is earning a profit and …growing continually…[It] really doesn’t care about the environment, and doesn’t really care about people much either. What it really cares about is profits and growth, and the rest is more or less incidental.” [Orion Magazine on-line, Sept.-Oct. 2008]
We have been taught not to question the idea of eternal growth. We have been taught to understand that “the economy” is healthy when it’s growing and unhealthy when it’s shrinking. But we have never been taught to wonder what the true economy is, or what it is for, or what it might be like if we forced other priorities forward.
For decades now, the most common measure of our economy has been the Gross Domestic Product. The GDP is simply the amount of money that changes hands in a given period of time. That’s why we hear so much about consumer spending: if we’re out there spending a lot of money, the economy is strong. There is no room to ask what that money was spent on, whether it’s good for us or bad for us, whether or not real things of lasting worth are being created and bought. Was the money spent gambling at Foxwoods? Or for quality childcare? There is no way to know. There is also no way to add in the cost to the environment, or the loss of time for leisure and relationship when our lives are bound up in whirlwind of earning and spending money.
In an essay called “Our Phony Economy,” Jonathan Rowe elaborates: “The purpose of an economy is to meet human needs in such a way that life becomes in some respect richer and better in the process. It is not simply to produce a lot of stuff. Stuff is a means, not an end… [We can’t simply say that growth is good]. Find out what is growing and the effects. Tell us what this growth is, in concrete terms. Then we can begin to say whether it has been good. The failure to do this is insane.” [Harpers Magazine, June 2008]
The first thing we can do is stay alert to this kind of insanity. Telling us what will make the economy start growing again is not enough. We need to know whether all that’s growing again is debt and bad mortgages, or if there is real production of things that enhance our lives and our environment. And we need to know this before, not after, our representatives sign a blank check supported by our taxes.
The second thing we can do is to behave like citizens instead of consumers. The difference is enormous, and it has never more important than it is today. Consumers are passive. Citizens are active. Consumers hunker down and wait for better times so they can feel comfortable going out and buying the new computer or car or refrigerator they think they need. Citizens ask pointed questions, boot out politicians who do not serve them well, organize to use real power to change things. Consumers get frightened. Citizens get outraged.
Outrage is exactly what we need right now. Not long ago I read about a press conference Tony Blair held when he was still Prime Minister of Britain I realized with awe and jealousy how much more real and vibrant and challenging the British media seemed to be. On our side of the Atlantic we have these carefully screened, excruciatingly polite exchanges, in which even the most outrageous distortion or lie on the part of our leaders is received with deference, as though some weird etiquette has become more important than digging out the truth. In this British press conference, in which Blair was pinned down about the reasons England entered the war in Iraq, in response to one of his answers a woman called out, “Oh, that’s rubbish, Tony!” [Harper’s Magazine, June 2008]
How refreshing it would be if someone were brave and honest enough to speak that kind of truth to our own representatives, from the President on down! As citizens, we should not stand for pat answers, distortions and lies. When we’re asked for a blank check, we should be saying, “that’s rubbish!” – or our American equivalent.
We should demand that taxpayer money be treated like investors’ money, so that if risk is socialized the profits are socialized as well. We should insist that anything that’s done to stimulate the economy be done where it makes the most difference, creating real jobs and doing it in areas of real benefit, like green energy, restoring ecosystems, creating excellent public transportation, supporting better schools, and so on. And we should demand real campaign finance reform. We should wake up, at long last, to the obvious fact that no one who receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from the banking industry can be trusted to regulate that industry.
A part of becoming true citizens again also has to do with justice. We have allowed ourselves to forget or ignore the fact that while this illusory economic boom was making unthinkable amounts of money for a few very wealthy people, the gap between the rich and the poor in this country also grew every year. It has never been larger. There are places in this country that look far more like neighborhoods in the Third World than like a town in the United States of America – ask the members of this congregation who have continued to try to mend the wounds left by Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi.
This enormous gulf between the rich and poor is not just an economic issue but a moral and religious one. It demands a response from us, and that response has to be based in something stronger, better and more noble than an economic bottom line. It has to be based on our understanding of how we function or malfunction as a society, and the truth that our collective priorities reach far beyond profit and loss.
We are wealthier, together, when our children are safe and in good schools, when we have time for each other as well as for our jobs, when things like decent health care are considered to be rights, not privileges. We are diminished by the indignities and suffering of poverty, no matter how comfortable our own lives may be. Now, when we are in crisis, we must not allow the vulnerable to drop into the chasm with the excuse that in hard times, there is simply no money available for the programs that would sustain them or help them catch up.
Instead, we have to recognize that if we want a more just society, sacrifice is going to be required of those of us who are not living on the bitter edge right now. During the second presidential debate, the moderator asked the candidates to state how they would ask Americans to sacrifice in the months and years ahead. Neither candidate could bring himself to answer that question. I suppose that even now, it is political suicide to imply that we can’t have it all, immediately, with whipped cream on top.
It’s time to grow up. We will be sacrificing in the months and years ahead, no matter what the politicians tell us and no matter who wins this election. But our sacrifices will be meaningless if they still allow the poorest among us to sink. As people of faith, we will have to be willing to stretch ourselves in ways we might not yet be able to imagine. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, we must be willing to share our bread with the hungry and to house the homeless poor; to clothe those who are naked and not to hide ourselves from our own kin. All are our own kin.
The last thing I think we are called to as part of a religious response to this crisis is to invest profligately in human capital. It is not hair-brained optimism to say that although it is frightening, this is also an incredibly exciting time we’re living through. It is a time of change and upheaval, but it is not necessarily only a time of loss. Historically it has been in the hardest times that people wake up and begin to find new ways to take control over their own lives. Instead of being lulled by all we’ve come to think of as “normal,” we get shaken out of our ruts and our comfort zones and we’re forced to figure out new ways to go about our lives.
And then we start to invest in the invisible and indispensable webs of relationship that bind us. We begin to see that there is real power there, strong enough to change our culture in ways we have not dared to imagine for a long, long time. Writing in last week’s issue of The Nation, Steve Fraser lifts up some of the ways this happened during the only comparable crash we have available to study, which was the Great Depression. He writes, “Despair, apathy and resignation were widespread…But the era is perhaps best known for the [repoliticizing] of millions of formerly inert citizens…[who] created out of nothing their own institutions. These labor unions, consumer groups, farmer alliances, civil rights associations, councils of the unemployed … and others helped reorient the axis of political life.” [The Nation, October 20, 2008]
It is not too much to hope for, that we might again wake up, find each other, our voices and our power, and reorient the axis of political life. It’s worth hoping for, and worth working for with all the will, strength and courage we can muster. It is my most fervent prayer that this is exactly what we will do. May it be so, and Amen.
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