“What am I supposed to do?” "What would Jesus do?" "What would my Money Do?"
As civilization rose and we grew more enlightened and less savage, we tended to think before we did things, rather than acting on gut instinct. Our American president previous to this one prided himself on trusting his gut, but even in his case his gut instinct was mediated by his upbringing and his values. He declared that he was a deeply Christian person. Why did he take such satisfaction in warfare? Why did he take such a muscular position in favor of unbridled capitalism and greed? We may never know. Christians can be slippery and wealthy people remain wealthy by evading difficult questions like this.
“What Would Jesus Do?” is a very old question every Christian asks him or herself, but this too has become mediated. The fastest growing Christian sects are those which preach Jesus as Champion of Capitalism. But if you look at what Jesus said and what his apostles wrote about him, it appears to be a very socialist set of beliefs and instructions. Bernie Sanders is a socialist, which is why many Americans supposedly worry about his values––at least according to the largest newspaper chains and news networks (and they say if we don't worry, we should.). He's also a Jew, but of course Jesus was a Jew. This is what's called a conundrum. Conundrums are solved by consulting a reliable authority and there is no more reliable authority than the market valuation.
We wake up in the morning and ask what has happened in the world. What should we do? What should we think? Where we look first might indicate our mindset. Many, perhaps most, Americans calculate their well-being by economic measures, so many people's first look is to the state of the markets. How is my portfolio doing, or my mutual fund? This represents health and safety. Am I wealthier or poorer than when I went to bed? Is there a trend? Should I worry? What actions can I take to keep myself safe? By safe we usually mean secure, and by secure we mean financially secure.
Before FDR was president most Americans ended their lives in poverty. This fear has not gone away despite Social Security. The enemies of Social Security like to undermine the institution. They'd earn a lot of money if the old age of 250 million were in their hands.
Reagan borrowed massively from Social Security and never paid it back, and his followers blame Social Security for the projected insufficiency this created. We blamed the Germans for the looting of Europe; why don't we hold Reagan responsible for what he did to our collective financial security?
Reagan brought a whole new philosophy with him, one which has been dominant in this country ever since. “Public is Bad. Private is Good.” Which is sort of like saying public pools are unAmerican and country clubs are our greatest achievement. Reaganism threw out whole chapters of the American tradition. The barn raising. The quilting bee. The Pilgrim tradition of the community participating in the harvest as one and celebrating it as one, communally (which sounds dangerously like “communism”). The farmers' cooperative. The grange. The postal service and rural free delivery. Power cooperatives. Whole areas of “Help Thy Neighbor” tradition, gone. By the standards of Reaganism the church congregation is a socialist idea, but again Jesus was a socialist and Reagan didn't go to church.
Americans today are less likely to ask “What Would Jesus Do?” And it isn't just non-Christians falling away from this old habit. The most energetic “Christians” around are not very Christlike. Most Americans have replaced the old question with a new one: “What Would My Money Do?” Or just “What Would Money Do?” What does my money think about this? What would benefit me? Because all of the decisions and value judgments Americans make are based upon money, their money, will their money grow or shrink as a result? Value judgments have become more about market value and property value and personal worth and less about community values and universal values. More earth and less spirit. This is not a new thing, but it has become a more dominant mindset in recent decades. What should I think about the person of color moving in down the block? What would my money think about that? What will it do to my property value? If we move away from fossil fuels, what will that do to my investments? What will it do to the price of gas?
But the greatest part of this shift has been demographic. Baby Boomers are retiring. They are no longer working for a living (those that can afford to retire); they now own for a living and they are learning to think differently, more like their money. They are riveted by the ups and downs of their pile of money, and they worry. Is it growing or shrinking? What will become of me? After three decades of Reaganomics and its attacks, Social Security seems less secure, which has weakened that backstop, that life preserver.
Reaganomics traded away guaranteed pensions in exchange for 401Ks, which promised enormous returns but hid enormous risks. Americans are hostage to their money, so they let their money think for them. Is their money thinking for them or is it thinking for itself? If you delegate your investment decisions to a financial planner, is he working for you or is he being paid by someone else? It's considered wise to pay him a percentage, that links your interests with his. But it also divorces your interests from those who do not hold the same investments. It creates a large system of rivalry, by which our prosperity may hinge upon another person's or another family's or another whole population's impoverishment. There is a strength in numbers, but those who have greater power increase their power by dividing up the interests of others into lonely, powerless individuals and groups whose interests they can more easily leverage and appropriate as their own. Our weakness is their power.
The more powerless we are the more likely we will follow the instructions of the powerful. What should my money do? And we look at the wealthy and powerful individual, whose opinions dominate the media, and we say “I think my money would like to have what he is having.” (The problem is this: "what he's having" is often you.) His modus operandum may be selfishness, or greed, or ruthlessness, but it comes disguised as other more examplary things, partly because we are shown their example all the time, partly because we want to be as much like them as possible. We tend to admire those who dress well and have nicer cars and homes. And isn't the man in the most hugely expensive suit and car and homes the most examplary of all? Let's all follow him...
When it happens in everyday decisions selfishness can resemble frugality or prudence. We should be careful how we spend, surely, but does that wisdom extend to inhibiting the agency of others? Does the wisdom of frugality mean the poor shouldn't eat? And if we can't protect our own sufficiency are we doing the next best thing by harming the sufficiency of the person next to us? Moneythink has crept into all areas of decision making, caroming from one dilemma and into others. In some areas, without our being aware of it, it has usurped our thought processes altogether, and our moral reasoning. Our thought processes, if we are post-Enlightenment people, consider many things outside of satisfying our appetites and our prejudices. Sometimes we don't seek to gain advantage, either because it looks bad or because it violates our principles, but moneymindedness tends to shift those considerations into pure dollar terms: how will it affect my money, my wealth? In those terms it is always best to seek advantage. In money terms, all advantage is moral, and failure to seize an advantage is immoral.
Suppose a public need arises; money looks at all need as a business opportunity––how can it be turned to profit? How can that profit be maximized? Health is a need; moneymindedness is less interested in the health giving side than the profit creating side, and how that profit can be increased and perpetuated. Money isn't interested in fixing problems; money wants to harness problems to create a flow of profits. And having harnessed that problem it becomes foolish to solve it because that would end the flow of profit. Greater desperation increases the leverage of that profitization. People in pain or fear of death are wonderful customers eager to deliver themselves into your profit model, just for God's sake, make me stop hurting, keep me alive! But a cure? That is a less attractive business model because it ends the transaction. In those cases it's necessary to squeeze the sick as hard as possible the first time because it's the only chance your business has.
Just as it seeks to profitize problems, money seeks to minimize the obligations that problems represent. If a problem seems too difficult to profitize, moneythink advises us to ignore it, to pass the responsibility on to others, or at least to minimize the cost borne personally; pass the parcel, evade responsibility, pretend it doesn't exist. Problems you can stop spending money on cease to be problems. The unprofitable spending is the problem in moneythink terms.
Moneythink also urges us to think of complicated issues in less complicated ways. Profit uncomplicates many issues because there is only one best result, the most profitable one. The efficiency of any solution is measured by how well it delivers profit, not by how well it solves the original problem. That problem is often put into quotes. It is a “problem”, because the real Problem To Be Solved is how to extract the money from them and deliver it to me. Increasingly, especially in post-Reagan America, efficiency is defined purely in monetary terms, in terms of profit, not in terms of the fulfillment of needs or the solution of societal “problems.” The problems unknit by the geniuses at the Harvard Business School and chronicled in their legendary Case Studies are problems of money, not people.
Every few years we, as Americans, as members of a society, make bigger decisions with longer consequences. Who should I vote for? More and more, Americans ask: Who would my money vote for? As the demographics shift, with more retirees thinking as people who own for a living and fewer thinking, at least in aggregate, as people who work for a living, this is becoming a very bad habit, societywise. Society is made up of people, but money doesn't think much about people. It thinks of people as an opportunity to be siezed or a problem to be exploited. “Problems”, meaning society's ills and difficulties, are the enemies of profit and the efficiency defined by profit, and should therefore be avoided. Prudent, practical, selfish, greedy people avoid this kind of problem. Moneythink reduces each of us to an individual, not to empower us (as in the myth of rugged individualism), but to reduce us, to disempower us, to make us insignificant, a small voice amidst all the noise, to divorce us from those who share our interests as members of a decent society, or one that wishes to be decent.
Money likes money. Money––so the thinking goes (if you can call it thinking)––Money thinks we should all vote for someone with money. Money is the only valid guarantee. Money shows greater intelligence. Money shows greater competence. Money equals Goodness. Or, perhaps, Money simply means Power, means brutal lack of concern, means pure selfishness, means that success is less complicated because it erases the interests of everybody else. An individual has vast wealth. Good for him. But who else was it good for? And who did it harm?
Because money is a brutal master. Money hasn't got a soul or a conscience. Your money only cares about you; or does it care about you at all? Moneythink has contempt for conscience and mercy and generosity, because these things tend to decrease share value. When you get down to it, money doesn't think. Money goes with its gut feeling. Money follows its appetite. Money is remorseless. Above all, Moneythink admires pure efficiency. What form of life represents pure efficiency? A virus? A cancer cell? The Renaissance was very inefficient. Christianity (at least in its original form, when Jesus was still around) preached giving everything one has to the poor, housing the stranger, healing the sick, rejecting wealth and power, rejecting war (imagine all the profits that would lose us) all of which is very inefficient according to the way your money looks at things. So which fundamental American value do you value? Are you a socialist like Jesus or do you let your money make all of your decisions?
Do you think “What would Jesus do?” or “What would my Money do?” Or do you simply think “What is the right thing to do, for myself and humanity?”
Britain in 1940 was beseiged by Nazi Germany. Churchill asked FDR urgently for help. FDR wanted to help. America, though, as represented by Congress, considered its own interests, which didn't include helping Europe in another war. If help was going to be forthcoming it would have to pay. Self interest, but also Moneythink, came into play.
FDR described Lend Lease as a neighbor letting a neighbor use his garden hose to put out a fire. But our house wasn't on fire. Congress insisted we charge Britain for the use of our hose. The more Britain needed our help, the more Congress thought we should charge for the hose.
Why does one person's disadvantage accrue to another person's profit? Pure neighborliness would consider it immoral to charge for the garden hose. But pure moneythink considers it immoral to take anything less than what you are able to take, which is whatever your leverage allows. To do less, to take less, makes you a fool, and therefore not competent to manage your own or anyone's affairs, but it also makes you irresponsible, which is the greatest sin. Irresponsibility is a sin against the nature of possessions and money. It is the sin of taking less than the maximum. “He who hestitates is lost.” Always trust your gut, and your gut is always ravenous.
Moneythink rationalizes all kinds of maximized leverage. Slavery, peonage, blackmail, usury, predatory business, cannibalism, piracy. In Moneythink terms, might always makes right. Money gives you license to do whatever you can. Money dictates you take whatever is available. To do less is immoral in the bizarro-morality of moneythink.
In the folk tales, the man saved from drowning becomes the slave of the man who has rescued him. But in the folk tales the rescuer is always the underdog, the vagabond, the penniless youngest son. In the world of money, the real world, the individual in a position to rescue is almost always the one with power and property and means.
When does self interest make logical sense?
The swimmer analogy: a rescuer trying to save a drowning man might wind up drowning too. Drowning men are irrational and can be strong and dangerous. So it's logical and prudent for the rescuer to assume a control position, to put the floundering individual in a headlock to save his life. Does this analogy rationalize some unfair practices in Moneythink terms?
Divestiture. Should we divest our fossil fuel investments to prevent disastrous climate change? Our money whispers at our elbow that we are now in a period of peak oil, when fossil fuels are becoming more scarce even while they are of maximum necessity. Do we delegate this decision to our money manager? Our financial advisor? He has something called “fiduciary responsibility” which makes it a crime, a sin, to not take maximum advantage, to not earn maximum profit. Which makes it his job to maximize short term profit at the cost of longterm disaster.
What do we call this delegation of responsibility? This special kind of rationalization?
We've seen it in literature many times: in Sense And Sensibility, before Dashwood pére dies he demands that his son and heir take proper care of his sisters and their mother who, under entailment, inherit nothing. Young Dashwood promises. But in a series of conversations early in the novel, his wife helps him reason his way out of any monetary responsibility. It is very politely and reasonably and morally done. The self-justifications almost sound like proverbs from the Bible. But it is done with the language and logic of Money, which is an entirely different moral universe. In Moneythink it is immoral to give away. It is immoral not to take everything you can.
But when employees organize to negotiate for better wages, “taking everything you can” based upon leverage and power is recategorized out of the realm of Moneythink and back into the Christian and societal moral universe where such behavior is greedy and selfish and wrong and sinful and immoral. Those who own shares for a living place themselves in a morally superior position relative to those who work for a living. And those who work and save are welcomed into that world when they invest, in effect transferring control of their earning power to those handling their portfolio.
By this partitioning of ethics, those who have money and power are entitled to leverage that money and power as they are able, and to aggregate as much more money and power as they are able. But those who do not have money and power are wrong to try to gain it. This morality shelters its logic under the selflessness of Jesus, arguing that the poor man is behaving morally by submitting, by humbling himself. “Blessed are the poor” is invoked by the rich to justify the poverty of others. As if by making people poor the rich man is doing them a favor. But the same moral context also contains the parable of the wealthy man and the eye of the needle. That part of the gospel is seldom invoked in Moneythink. It exists in a separate part of our moral thinking, sealed off so as not to disrupt or contradict the smoothness of Moneythink. If Adam Smith provides a useful way for Money to put its morals offshore, safe in a different chapter of a different book, The New Testament also conveniently justifies the profitable impoverishment of others.
This clever compartmentalization is also used by the new Money Christians of the Prosperity Gospel, who jump from one rulebook to another as the context shifts. Is it my (the wealthy pastor's) money question? Then The Wealth of Nations applies. Is it the interests of the poor that are being considered? Then they are better off being poor and therefore more blessed, and off our congregation's hands. Giving is blessed if it means buying the pastor a new jet, but it is unwise and sinful if it means giving to the "undeserving" poor. And all the poor are undeserving or they wouldn't be poor. Before someone asks how they can be undeserving and blessed simultaneously it is time for an uplifting hymn.
(An interesting footnote to this story: Hobby Lobby, the company so Christian it won't pay for contraceptive coverage for its employees, is simultaneously investing in companies that make contraceptives and abortion drugs. The story from DailyKos.
Labels: Christianity, exploitation, humanism, moneythink, predatory capitalism, public interest, pure market Capitalism, rent-seeking, self interest, selfishness