Economics 101

I spent the day today at a workshop for librarians and library staff on financial literacy, and ways we can help our patrons better understand their finances.  The day was full of information, and I’ll spend a lot of time processing it.

I do agreed that having a better understanding of money and getting better control of it is helpful.  Anything that helps one navigate the world better is good.

But as I sat there, I couldn’t help thinking that the premises of American policy, especially now, is based on false values and false assumptions.  I’m not sure I can quite put it together in my mind at this point, but I’m going to make an attempt.

When we began the workshop, we were asked, in our various groups to free associate on the word “money.”  I was the first out of the gate in my group with the suggestion, “is the root of all evil.”  In the Latin proverb, it is actually radix malorum est cupiditas (“Greed is the root of evils”).  Money itself may be neutral, but the desire for goods, something consumerism is based on — a consumer economy is based on the populace consuming goods, and always moving on to new goods as the old fail or lose their lustre.  This desire for goods, for things, to somehow take away the malaise we feel, or the sadness, or the hurt or pain, is ultimately false.  It is not that needed goods (a good bed to sleep in, or a good chair in which to sit, or a good book to instruct us or delight us) don’t provide joy, and don’t bring something of value to life.  But the sense that, if only I had the latest iPhone, or iPod, or big-screen HD TV, my life would be better.  That is false.  Goods as such cannot make us better, or even feel better long term.  That must come from within ourselves, and from the community of friends about us.  And the extent that desire for the best new thing causes us to feel envy or jealousy and disrupts our peace of mind and stirs up trouble between friends — well, you can see how that could be seen as the “root of evil.”  And when that desire becomes something insatiable, as we often see in the wealthiest among us — well, then it gets to be something of a disease, one fatal to a strong community.  Because then, the wealthiest feel that they are entitled to all their stuff, even if the cost of their having a surplus is that their neighbor does not have enough.  And those who are not the wealthiest, but who have drunk that toxic kool-aid, spend their lives trying only to accumulate wealth, no matter the cost to themselves and those around them.

I can’t help thinking that rampant capitalism as we experience it in the 21st c. and as we saw it in the final decades of the 20th c., can only lead to such a destructive pursuit of wealth at the expense of one’s fellows.  Growing up in Massachusetts, I was very aware of the fact that the official seal of the state does not refer to it as a state, but as a Commonwealth.  That word, even if not quite true, had its origins in the birth of the state.  The pilgrim and Puritan settlers in New England had lots of flaws (religious intolerance being one of them), but there was a sense in those 17th c. settlers of shared risk and shared profit.  They were all in it together.  I don’t see that sense in many of those elected to represent us in Jefferson City, or in Washington, DC.  Especially amongst the Ayn Randian crowd, there is no sense of sharing.  The Randian superman should be unfettered in his search for wealth and power, and those who lack his super drive and ego, they should be satisfied if they can benefit somehow incidentally.  For the Randian superman, what happens to others is of no concern, for his belief is a selfish one, and he figures he owes nothing to his fellow man, but only to his own empire.

That view seems alien to my Catholic sensibilities.  I grew up Catholic during the 1960s, in a union household.  And there was a strong sense among the Irish, and Italian and Polish Catholics (most of the Catholics in Boston were one of the three) that Catholicism was all about a shared sacrifice and effort for others, and that, in the workplace, unions offered the same solidarity for workers.  Because the union and the parish was not made up of interchangeable cogs in some corporate machine (the capitalist view of people as “human” resources); it was made up of friends like Frank, or Dave, or Joe, or Mary, or Betty.  These people did not lose their humanity and become statistic to serve as part of the bottom line on some corporate spreadsheet.  They mattered as people, and as such deserved to be well treated and deserving of respect and care.

Even outside the Catholic Church, you can see that spirit in films like Capra’s Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  That was a common view in the 1930s as formerly middle class and working class families were working together to get out of poverty.   Those who did not share that view, but took an Ayn Randian view (like Mr. D.B. Norton, the newspaper mogul in Meet John Doe, or Sen. Joseph Paine in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) were cast as the villains they truly are.  And yet, the party in control of all three branches of government at the present time seems all to ready to be just like the crooked Sen. Paine, interested only in making money for himself and his friends, and not caring about the “little guy.”  It’s like they saw the same movie I did, but wanted the bad guys to win, and currently those bad guys think (and appear to be) they are winning.  They may use populist words, but they don’t care about the “little guy,” not one bit.

And I can’t help thinking that some of the problem is with capitalism itself — when humans are seen as things, to be used by the powerful to help the powerful acquire more things, something is wrong.  Until we can see our fellow as friend and deserving, and not stand by those who would use them and us for some personal gain, until we can reject the false doctrines that lead us to devalue people and overvalue things, until we can see the brother in the other, none of which capitalism espouses or promotes, I’m not sure we can turn things around.

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