The turmoil on Wall Street is continuing, and even though it is closer to me than even Russia is to Alaska, I understand less than little about economics. And yet the human toll of the crashes and crises is poignantly clear, and is spreading.
Can the religious community have a voice in fixing this? Or is it just a matter of offering spiritual succor to the victims, from Wall Street to Main Street? Over the years I have written pieces on what the variety of religious traditions say about a rightly-ordered economy, but for every assertion of a principle there is an equal and opposite reaction, or, as is often the case, especially among some Christian communities, the view that economics is not the proper forum for Christian preaching (beyond vague appeals to the Golden Rule). The economy becomes a person, in a sense, afflicted by original sin that will inevitably bring the cycle of prosperity down again, with the only hope of salvation a true and full liberty to make proper choices. (That’d be unfettered capitalism).
That’s actually understandable in the Christian context especially, as Christianity seemed initially like an enterprise built for the short term. Only by the end of the first century did we start selling long-term bonds. But Adam Smith was no mean theologian, and the Catholic bishops wrote what a truly powerful pastoral letter on the economy in 1986, called “Economic Justice for All.” Unfortunately it is hard to find (good luck searching the bishops’ web site; the link here is to the Minneapolis-Saint Paul social justice office) and amid the debates over who is a good enough Catholic to receive communion, it doesn’t look as though the pastoral letter will get much of a hearing. It should. As Dickens might have said, the present crisis is so much like the past that they are almost indistingushable. And as the bishops say up top:
Our faith calls us to measure this economy, not by what it produces but also by how it touches human life and whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person. Economic decisions have human consequences and moral content; they help or hurt people, strengthen or weaken family life, advance or diminish the quality of justice in our land.”
Yes, I think there is a “Christian-omics,” so to speak, and one that is applicable to today’s crisis and future policies. But it takes into account the common good as much as individual freedom, and that does not play well among even those Americans such a vision would help, and especially in an election year in which shared sacrifice for shared benefit is not a crowd-pleasing line.
BTW, the differing approaches may be summed up by the McCain and Obama responses, as summed up in a Times article today: McCain pointed to greed on Wall Street, Obama to lax regulation in Washington.
UPDATE: Click, don’t walk, to check out Mark Sargent’s review of the new Charles R. Morris book, “The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash,” reviewed here in the latest Commonweal magazine. (Morris is brilliant, and wrote the indispensible, “American Catholics.”) The full article is subscribers-only, but it costs a pittance, and you’ll save lots more in the long run. Here’s a taste:
A lawyer and former banker, as well as a distinguished writer on business and finance (and Commonweal contributor), Morris cuts through the bafflements of modern finance to explain why the credit markets crashed in October 2007. In the process, he demystifies financial terms and jargon, linking them in an overarching narrative that extends from the Nixon administration to today and offering a brilliant analysis of how the ideological paradigm of free markets and deregulation contained the seeds of its own destruction.