Monday, June 30, 2008

On Taking a Deep Breath about the Economy

Some years ago a sermon I heard from a priest trying to buddy up to the congregation began with the words, "we all cheat on our taxes." What better moment to thread back to my series on a nonreligious ethical decalogue, and its economic morals, than right after a stock market low and an oil price peak.

Professionals of religion, like conservative politicians, spend way too much worry on sex and too little on economics. Yet the reality that undergirds the only reasonable way to live is that we can all survive only if we focus on respecting the means by which our fellows weather the challenges of ill fortune.

This is the problem with the chain events leading to both the stock market plunge and the oil price surge. Watch the market go up now that I've written this ... and here comes the oil price drop. It actually doesn't matter if the fluctuation reverses, the point is that we are at an unstable moment brought on by unsavory doings.

Some of those are the deeds of the "they" we're always complaining about. "They" unloaded houses on people who couldn't afford them, with mortgages obtained with at least significant omissions of fact, a debt which was then resold and finally repackaged as securities that were sold at values that criminally understated the risk.

In my view, the stock market is reacting to a string of write downs reports of losses that are likely to continue for a year or so. The fluctuations come with people who rush in at each low, buy cheap, then sell quickly. Thursday, it seems, there were fewer buyers, perhaps because people are running scared.

OK, there's all too much greed at the top of the anthill. We knew this, no?

But then there's "Us." You know, you and me, the "little people," as Leona Helmsley put it. Or, as my favorite Catalonian singer, Joan Manuel Serrat, puts it in his song
Uno de mi calle me ha dicho que tiene un amigo que dice conocer un tipo que un día fue feliz (A guy on my street told me he has a friend who said he knows a guy who was happy one day):
a man as any:
ignored,
disoriented,
contaminated as any,
bored, yet a little daring
when you least expect it
That's us, right? We reach for happiness with our cars and our homes and our fast, faster, fastest computers -- a lifestyle that daily guzzles down in minutes fuel formed over millions of years from prehistoric plankton and algae.

Our SUVs consume it, the plastic in our CDs comes from it, the electricity that powers our computers would not be possible without it.

OK, the Chinese are gas guzzlers, too. So? Most of them are like us -- "ignored, disoriented, contaminated" -- it's their faces, too, that show up in the mirror when we search for who got us to $4.61 a gallon gasoline. (That's the price at my corner, if it's cheaper than yours, come visit.)

In a way, we're as bad as the bad actors on Wall Street. Because every drop we burn comes thanks to an exploitative system that gives rise to the irrational rage of suicide bombers.

We have a choice here:

We can be greedy and fearful as our society bids us to be, striving to accumulate in order to consume things to make ourselves popular and good-looking and smart-appearing, all to stoke the machinery that keeps everything going just as always.

Or we can stop. Take a deep breath. Consider what respecting the means by which we and our fellows live really amounts to in hard, practical terms.

This need not mean becoming an anchorite in a cave.

It may mean reconsidering property, what is legitimately private and what remain our common legacy for future generations.

Or we may have to recalibrate pay differentials (I'm of two minds as to whether differentials should exist) as we know them so that they make sense. For example, shouldn't garbage collectors, who do the most odious work, be paid more than people whose work is pleasant or even enjoyable?

At a less lofty macro level, it may simply mean regarding the just wages and fairly held property of others with the same respect we regard what we claim as justly ours, meaning that perhaps we all need to winnow out what we don't need so that we can all have enough.

We can all have enough. I believe that and the facts supports me. Moreover, we can turn greed and fear into the joy of sharing and the hope of loving.

I'm not certain that we can eliminate all differentials, nor that we would want to, nor much less that I know how to do it, anyway. But I am certain that we can all survive together.
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