It’s NOT the Economy, Stupid

Most Americans have money much on their minds these days. The nation, it is said, faces the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, if it is not already in its grip. Sometime early in the new Obama Administration we may want to say a thing or two about crises and their usefulness to the modern state — a usefulness great enough that there are always those ready to magnify any that arises or even to contrive it. (That in contrast to times past when rulers were Christian and their success was measured by the extent to which they avoided crises, not by how they “managed” them.) Right now, however, we want to speak to the economic crisis at hand.

Without minimizing the real financial hurt some are feeling, what we want to contend is that the present economic difficulties would not exist, or at least would not hurt as much, if more Americans in recent decades had not already been thinking primarily about money instead of other matters, like the probable results of their thinking primarily about money, all it could buy and how to get more with as little effort as possible (as by “flipping” real estate properties).

It was so much the case that money was foremost on their minds that whenever election time came around, they were invariably ready to put pocketbook issues before all others, as famously manifested back in 1992 when Bill Clinton first ran for President and his campaign staff made their guiding mantra: “It’s the economy, stupid”. They knew that the candidate’s position on the so-called social issues, not to speak of all the “bimbo explosions,” would be ignored by the majority of voters, including Catholics, if the latter were persuaded Clinton would keep money in their pockets. They were right. Not simply was Clinton elected twice, but the seeming prosperity of his years in the White House would get him through the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment so that even by the time he left office he would be seen as he is today, not disgraced but as a kind of amiably roguish elder statesman.

In writing as we do here, what we mean to suggest is that the present crisis, to the extent it is real, is less economic than moral, and that it was a long time coming. To his credit, Barack Obama seems to have some sense of this. That is judging from his remark at a Chicago news conference on December 19 that “there needs to be a shift in ethics on Wall Street.”

Doubtless we shall hear some elaboration of that thought in his inaugural address. Bearing in mind that on December 19 he spoke in the immediate wake of the revelation of Bernard Madoff’s alleged $50-billion ponzi scheme, it will be interesting to see if the new President tells us on January 20 that the “shift” needs to extend beyond Wall Street. That is because, in truth, it needs to extend right across the society. Does he understand that? If so, on what basis would he recommend that the “shift” should take place? A “shift” to what? Will his speechwriters dust off that old standby favored by politicians of the fairly recent past whenever they wanted to pretend the society’s members were imbued with a sense of something higher than themselves and their material interests: “Judaeo-Christian values”? But what would they be, beyond that social attitude elevated by liberalism into a virtue, tolerance?

You cannot really say. More exactly, you can say values are whatever you want them to be. That is why we hear them described not simply as Judaeo-Christian but as traditional, liberal, American and so on. In other words, the term value is meaningless beyond its signifying the worth, utility or desirability of a thing. That is why it eventually gained currency in a society which itself had become impossible to define except, as it now is, as “free”. This was after it was adopted early in the 20th century by sociologists as a substitute for what formerly provided cohesion to society everywhere in the West and were known as Christian standards.

Though they formed the basis of laws, the standards were themselves moral, not legalistic. They were rooted in Scripture and Church teaching. There was nothing vague about them, as there is with values. They took the form of injunctions usually cast in negative terms (“Thou shalt not”) and were precise inasmuch as the behavior they enjoined was of a definite character. However, they could be flexible in their application.

For instance, there was the Scriptural injunction — one of the Ten Commandments — “Thou shalt not kill”. Killing was killing in all circumstances, but if a man found his wife with another man, grabbed a gun and shot them both, it was a crime of passion not to be judged in the same way as the act of someone who coolly poisons his spouse in order to collect insurance money. Similarly, “Thou shalt not steal” meant stealing was always stealing. It was always a sin. However, the sin of a poor man who stole $5 from a rich man in order to eat was less grave than would be that of a rich man who takes the life savings of an elderly couple, pretends to invest the money, but really uses it to help pay for a luxury penthouse for himself.

Once values were substituted for the old Christian standards, the moral considerations by which the complexity of human motives could be weighed (and that made application of the standards flexible), no longer figured in judging behavior. All that was left for judging it was the legality of an action. Purely legal standards lack flexibility. (That is why we have today the moral monstrosity of three-strikes-and-it’s-life where somebody convicted of possession of a small quantity of a drug goes to prison forever while a murderer can get out after a few years.) More to the point, when the old standards are no longer recognized and society’s members not held to them, somebody acting immorally need not be concerned about what he does as long as it is legal. He will feel free to do whatever he wants if he can get by with it under the law. Anything goes. (When the U.S. Supreme Court made it legal, we even started openly killing preborn babies.)

Though the old moral injunctions may have been cast in negative terms, the wonderful thing about them was that they engendered positive behavior. Thus “Thou shalt not kill” became, in effect, “Thou shalt defend life”. That is what the Christian knight set out to do when he vowed at the time of his investiture to defend widows, orphans and everybody else who was defenseless. In modern time, warriors “free” of the old standards and fighting to extend such “freedom” to others, have deliberately targeted the unarmed, as in the “terror bombing” (the term used at the time) of German and Japanese civilian population centers in World War II. (In this world we can never know exactly how much our crimes weigh in Heaven’s scale of justice, but this writer can conceive that miseries visited on the U.S. today and for years yet to come could be payment for those bombings. Of course added to the millions of lives taken by them must be the millions of innocent ones snuffed out by legal abortion.)

In the same way, “Thou shalt not steal” meant to the Christian banker, when such existed, that he should practice honesty, prudence, diligence and transparency. We have seen in recent months, of course, that too many bankers were more given to doing simply whatever they could legally get by with to enrich themselves. The trouble for the new Administration and the rest of society is that the bankers were far from alone in their heedlessness and greed.

The politicians were heedless back in 1977 during the Carter Administration when Congress enacted, and Carter signed into law, the Neighborhood Reinvestment Act (NRA), which was meant to stop the practice of redlining neighborhoods by lending institutions. Doubtless redlining produced injustice. Some hard-working, credit-worthy individuals were prevented from purchasing homes because of it. However, opening up the possibility of home ownership to everybody — a goal sought by community organizers such as Barack Obama once was, and that began with passage of the NRA — is exactly what would eventually produce the mess in which the nation now finds itself, for the simple reason that many who contracted to buy homes really couldn’t afford it.

Of course the mess — the meltdown that started last October — did not develop overnight. At first, Wall Street, always on the lookout for new ways to make money, took to buying all the questionable mortgages from the banks and “bundling” them into securities which they then sold to hedge funds. This shifted risk from the banks and themselves with everybody making money in the process. With so much money then flowing into the banks, they started offering more and more mortgages to folks who could not afford them. “You want to buy a house for $200,000 but make only $20,000 a year? Don’t worry about it. Under the terms of this mortgage you’ll be able to manage the payments for the first two years. If you can’t handle them when the higher payments kick in, the house by then will have increased so much in value you’ll be able to sell it for a profit.” That was the line, and it worked until home prices stopped rising. When new money then stopped flowing in, the whole thing collapsed just like Madoff’s, or any other, ponzi scheme.

Yes, the politicians were heedless in ‘77, and greedy — greedy for the votes they thought they were buying by enacting the NRA. Certainly the bankers and too many other mortgage lenders were heedless and greedy. But let’s be completely honest. The ordinary citizens who bought houses they couldn’t afford weren’t all innocent lambs being taken advantage of by predatory lenders. An awful lot of them were looking for what they thought would be a surefire investment, the moral equivalent of a winning lottery ticket, not a home. They imagined they could have a comfy life in a big house and make big money doing it.

Maybe everybody involved feels chastened at the moment, but for how long? Not very, we would bet. This isn’t the 1930s. Seventy-five years ago, Christian standards had not yet been entirely replaced by meaningless values, and by living according to them the society still possessed moral reserves we now lack. Among the reserves was patience. The nation was prepared to wait while Franklin Roosevelt tried this and that, as Obama will do, to get the economy going again. It waited a decade until finally World War II turned most draft-age men from job-seekers into soldiers, and put everybody else to work, including women, building tanks, jeeps, airplanes and liberty ships. Barack Obama won’t be allowed that kind of time. It’s not just instant gratification of their physical wants that Americans expect today. The increasing number of unemployed aren’t going to wait for jobs making solar panels, wind turbines and hydrogen-powered cars to open up sometime years from now. If the massive government programs Obama plans don’t put enough men and women back to work immediately, the Republicans will retake Congress in 2010 and he’ll be a one-term President. Not that electoral defeat for his party and him could be the worst outcome of failure to “manage” the present crisis — not for the nation.

It would be entirely too facile to say at this point that what the new President needs to do is act to put the nation back on a moral footing, to call on it to return to living according to the old Christian standards. The truth is he can’t do that even if he were inclined. It would be politically impossible and probably not even legal, not for a leader supposed to be President of “all the people”when many of them aren’t Christian anymore and all exult in their “freedom” and the old Christian standards are what they are “free” from. Why, before he finished his speech every civil rights organization in the country would be in court charging violation of the separation of Church and state. But let’s set aside this matter of legality. Who would want to heed his call? Who would even listen? Christian standards are restrictive and therefore simply not relevant to a people who are “free”. There is no basis, for them as well as Obama, on which a “shift in ethics” can take place.

The nation is caught in a bind of its own making. How can it escape difficulties it imagines to be purely economic, that it does not recognize as the consequence of its moral state? It cannot. Short of conversion, it may stagger on for a time, perhaps even for as long as it takes to finish what it has begun: contracept and abort itself, as it was known in history, out of existence. Or, before that happens, it could lapse into actual anarchy to mirror its moral state. More likely, it would go in another direction when it threatens to become ungovernable: toward tyranny. Tyranny would be a substitute for government the way values replaced Christian moral standards.