So, this is the goal:
And here’s where we are:
And here’s how we got here:
It’ll be a long way back, but let’s not forget the goal:
Watch the federal government’s lawsuit against Standard & Poor’s carefully. It’s an important strategic move to shift the public conversation about the financial industry.
The government’s argument will be that Standard & Poor’s, as a high-prestige provider of credit ratings and market indices, has a unique role in the financial markets: that of an authority upon whom all in the market rely.
Standard & Poor’s will argue that it is being scapegoated and that all in the market should properly rely upon their own due diligence.
To my eyes, this situation resembles one of the first great battles in American history to draw a line between government and private roles in the economy: the political battle of the 1830s over the Bank of the United States. The Bank of the United States was a private institution, as Standard & Poor’s is. It was chosen by the federal government as the institution that provided banking services to the Treasury. It was chartered by Congress (all banks then had to be chartered by a government, usually that of a state) in order to stabilize the currency at a time when there was no United States currency, only banknotes issued by the many chartered banks across the country. The Bank did that by setting discount rates on these various banknotes, in effect “exchange rates” or prices of one banknote against another. It held the many issuing banks accountable to maintain the value of their notes. All in the market relied upon the Bank of the United States in order to judge whether the currency tendered to them had the value to meet their price.
Standard & Poor’s position in today’s market, like that of a few other prestigious ratings firms such as Moody’s and unlike that of the Bank of the United States, was not conferred by a government contract but by a hard-earned reputation for integrity and reliability in its ratings. Nevertheless, like the Bank of the United States, it and a handful of firms do provide a service that all in the market rely upon and should not be expected to perform for themselves. It is ludicrous for Standard & Poor’s to argue that their ratings come with a warning of caveat emptor. The people who use those ratings are not the people who pay for them. If you want an S&P rating for your company, you pay for it. The rating is then published and made available to the public. The belief that S&P cannot be bought gives value to the rating. That belief, indeed, keeps S&P in business.
More is at stake in this suit than the fortunes of Standard & Poor’s. What is at stake is whether we view the market as a community whose agents serve each other and thus are responsible to each other for performing their economic roles with integrity, or instead view it as every man for himself and devil take the hindmost.
It is hard to get a legal foothold to enforce responsibility in a culture and a legal system that puts a premium on freedom. That’s one of the ways that freedom isn’t free. With Standard & Poor’s the federal government hopes it has a case it can win that will send a signal to economic agents to act responsibly, to perform their economic role with integrity in service to others.
I love All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. I got acquainted with that community when I served a year as interim associate minister at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church. What I love them for is their strong and continuing tradition of liberal religious witness. For example:
Rick Warren said: “Well certainly the Bible says we are to care about the poor. There’s over 2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor. And God says that those who care about the poor, God will care about them and God will bless them. But there’s a fundamental question on the meaning of “fairness.” Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.”
And All Saints’ Rev. Susan Russell replied with Matthew 20 (parable of the laborers in the vineyard), Isaiah 55:8 (“My ways are not your ways”), and Matthew 25 (“the least of these”). And then for good measure, she lifted up the principle that women (and anyone) ought to be able to make health care choices without their employer’s faith stance dictating their options. And she distinguished between the Biblical “preferential option for the poor” and the freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, saying in effect that they go hand in hand.
And I agree with all that.
But here’s the thing: her argument dismisses out of hand the notion of “wealth creation” that Warren was trying to lift up, saying in effect that caring for the poor is more important. And there are some problems with that.
First, there is the problem of dismissal-out-of-hand as a rhetorical strategy. I doubt that Rev. Russell would say that wealth creation is not a good thing. I doubt if, on reflection, she would say that helping the poor to create wealth for themselves was less important than ministering to their immediate needs. Rev. Warren was, in fact, lifting up part of the solution to the gulf between the rich and poor in our country. Wealth creation is something to seriously consider.
Most of our political rhetoric regarding the middle class is about somehow saving or rescuing it. But wealth creation is how the middle class comes to be. Anyone born into the middle class does not stay there without creating wealth of their own (trust me, I have experience at this). And many born to poverty might enter the middle class that way. One of the major issues of our national economic life is the amount of debt people hold. If I were out of debt, I’d be able to make it on the unemployment benefits I am currently receiving. As it is, I have to split my efforts between earning what extra I can to pay the month’s bills and finding a full-time job that will pay them and free up my benefits for the help of someone else. Had I made better choices, and had I managed to build some wealth, I might have avoided getting in the way of someone else’s help altogether. And I might have been in a position to help others, as the gospel teaches. I’d have more power, in other words, and be less dependent.
Now, I don’t say that anyone’s economic situation is entirely the result of their own efforts. I recognize, for example, in my own plight things I might have done or done better to avoid the mess I’m in, but also things that were beyond my control. Life is like that: a mix of works and grace. The thing is to arrange your life so that your works cooperate as best they can with the grace you are given to make the world more fair. By which I mean beautiful, not equitable – life-giving, not rationed.
Nobody likes to be dependent, and nobody likes having dependents. So nobody likes, when it comes to actually doing it, having to ration out equal shares. Our feelings about dependency move us toward a desire for independence; they propel some to desire power and wealth, and to abuse them when it comes to dependents or anyone else with a claim on them. And some then adopt the bootstrap paradigm instead of the gospel one. Love says our neighbors have a claim on us, whether we like it or not. Among the poor we find folks without the resources and power to meet their basic needs: that’s unjust, and some of our collective wealth ought to go to meeting those unmet needs.
When we speak of a right to health care, we mean that adequate healthcare is a basic minimum that everyone should enjoy. It ought to be a commons, not a market good. We keep trying to address healthcare through competition in a free market, but a commons is not managed that way. There are cases where markets fail – where they cannot succeed at all – and a commons is such a case. And that’s where the gospel comes in. When we emphasize rights, we play into the free market bias. Fair play, a level playing field, playing by the rules – these are invoked by the powerful as effectively as by the powerless. That means they’re playing the same game. The gospel comes in when we stop playing games and get serious about our love.
And one of the most loving things we can do is teach our children, and our neighbors if need be, to create wealth for themselves and be able to help themselves. And after that, to be able to help others. Because that’s how the world works. That’s how the world’s works best cooperate with the grace of the world.
That’s one of the most loving things – it’s not the only loving thing, and it’s not enough by itself. But it’s part of the answer, and we ought not to dismiss it out of hand.
And – while I’ve got you – the kind of argument I’ve just made for wealth creation, that it’s part of the answer, is being made to say that nuclear power is part of the solution to our country’s energy independence. I’d like to point out an important difference or two. The excess produced by wealth creation can benefit people. The excess produced by nuclear power production is a waste product that we have no safe way to dispose of, a bona fide harm to people. The process of wealth creation can be regulated to make it safe. The failure of nuclear power facilities to meet safety guidelines is a national scandal. And besides, there are viable comprehensive proposals to meet world’s projected energy needs that do not involve nuclear power. The right thing to do – the most loving thing – is to phase out and dismantle all nuclear power facilities as soon as possible.
“While I’ve got you” – what a nice rhetorical strategy! I love All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena.
More by Vihart:
From his interview with Religion and Ethics Newsweekly:
I was sitting propped up in bed waiting for someone who was sleeping in another part of the house to come and help me get up, and just suddenly – and I affirm that it wasn’t a dream, it was another kind of alternate reality that was far realer than any dream I’d ever had – and just suddenly I was in a slightly strange place, lying down on a bed of stones by a lake, and around me were these various men who were asleep, and huddled on the ground. And then one of the men stood up and came toward me and then sort of brushed me and beckoned me to follow him into the lake. And because I’d been in Israel for my second visit just a couple of months before, several months before, I realized that this was the Sea of Galilee and that this man was Jesus. I was in modern American clothes; he and the disciples were in sort of Bible suits. And we got into the water and he was simply – I could see it from a distance, in that form that disembodied experience has – and he was pouring handfuls of water down my very long, ugly cancer scar, down my spine, about a twelve-inch scar, and he said, “Your sins are forgiven.” And I thought – as indeed it would have been characteristic for the old Reynolds Price to think – I thought, that’s the last thing I want to hear. And I said to him, “Am I also cured?” And he said, “That too,” and he turned and walked away as though I’d forced it out of him. But I did get it. And he turned and walked back onto land, and I turned and followed behind him. The other reason that I still affirm that it was some sort of visionary experience as opposed to a dream, is that if it had been a consoling dream that my unconscious mind invented for itself to cheer me up, why did I never invent another one, though the going got much tougher as the next two and three years went by? And never again had that again, or anything remotely – and again, that’s one of the major things that strangers write to me about when they’ve read that book: they tell me about visionary experiences that they themselves have experienced in a time of catastrophe, and they almost invariably say, “You were the first person I’ve ever told, because I never thought anyone else would believe me.” …
The initial effect, of course – it wasn’t euphoric, I didn’t wake up feeling like, you know, “Hallelujah! I’m healed! Cancel the radiation!” I never assumed that I wasn’t to undergo the normal therapeutic procedures of my society. It was indeed those procedures which first of all paralyzed me and then rescued me in a paralyzed state – and thank you very much, I’m happy to be rescued no matter what the state. There came terrible times later when I had to turn on that vision and ask myself if it was some sort of delusion, but I don’t think there was ever a single day – not even a stretch of several hours – in which I really thought that somehow I’d been lied to. And I always clung onto that as a sense that there was some reason for my life to continue and that, again, I should cooperate or as Moses says in that wonderful moment in the book of Deuteronomy, he says, you know, God says, ‘I have set before you life and death, therefore choose life.’ And I always wanted to choose life and I still do, though I don’t for a moment think I’m going to live forever – not in this world.
See more of the interview: Religion and Ethics Newsweekly
Price’s book: A Whole New Life
Rather than turn away as in years past, I decided to watch the replay of the 9/11 attacks on MSNBC. Nine years later, I still cried, got angry, felt the echo of my fears and shock that day. Like it was the first anniversary of a loved one’s death. There’s so much to grieve. There’s absolutely no point in anyone telling me, “Never forget.” How could I possibly?
I had forgotten, however, how quickly the events were defined. The first plane hit at 8:42; by 10:30 the Pentagon was hit and both towers were down, and Tom Brokaw was calling it a declaration of war on America. The flight taken down by passengers near Shanksville PA was still an unconfirmed possible threat to Washington. Fifteen minutes later, AP reported that crash, and one reporter in the field was trying to back away from Brokaw’s words, saying it was “very much like a war.” But the spark of hysteria had caught. Understandably, since planes were still in the air, buildings around the country had been evacuated, and we were overwhelmed with shock and disbelief.
Barely two hours after the first strike, Osama bin Laden’s name was already connected to these events, as possibly responsible. Yassir Arafat had condemned the attack before the towers fell. Shortly after 11:00 bin Laden’s announcement of a coming attack on the United States, made three weeks earlier, had been gathered from Arab press sources, and bin Laden was identified on air as “the world’s leading terrorist.” Possibly being harbored in Afghanistan, “we’re not sure.” About twenty minutes later, there was a report of a bomb in Stuyvesant High School, a few blocks north of the towers. Wacky rumors about the buildings’ owners having demolished the WTC complex under cover of terrorist attack were yet to come. I guess things like that distracted me – understandable in the throws of shock and fear – from registering the fingers pointing to bin Laden. The reporters, too – five minutes after the school bomb scare, they were back to saying “whoever did this.”
This weekend we’re distracted by Quran-burning nuts and fringe protesters of a Muslim community center being developed a few blocks from the World Trade Center site. Here’s how the ninth anniversary of this tragedy is being defined by the grace of the calendar: important holidays of four world religions coincide. It is Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year, closely connected with the Days of Awe and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is Eid-al-Fitr, the feast following the fast of Ramadan, an observance of self-discipline and receptiveness to the presence of God. It is the Great Festival of the Hindu God Ganesh, remover of obstacles. And it is the last and most important day of Paryushana, the Jain observance centered on forgiveness.
May the obstacle of our fears be removed from us. May we be more receptive to the presence of God and more attuned with God’s love in our regard for one another. May we forgive ourselves and each other for succumbing to our fears. And may we begin again in love.
It would take five Earths to produce the resources needed for everyone to have the current American standard of living. If we speak of a higher standard of living – “higher than ever before known” – it is now irresponsible to define that standard according to how much stuff we can buy. It needs to be a standard of the quality of life, not the quantity of consumable goods. And it needs to be a standard not simply of comfort, but of security and peace for all:
“It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth- is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill housed, and insecure.
This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.
As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ (1) People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
The right of every family to a decent home; The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
The right to a good education.
All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.
One of the great American industrialists of our day—a man who has rendered yeoman service to his country in this crisis—recently emphasized the grave dangers of “rightist reaction” in this Nation. All clear-thinking businessmen share his concern. Indeed, if such reaction should develop—if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so- called “normalcy” of the 1920’s—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.”
(Exerpted from Franklin Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights” speech, January 11, 1944.)
(1) “Necessitous men are not, truly speaking, free men, but, to answer a present exigency, will submit to any terms that the crafty may impose upon them.” – Lord Henley, opinion in Vernon v Bethell (1762)