Sunday, March 01, 2009

Moral Hazards of a Coarser Time

Roughly three years ago, I stumbled upon an economist who, in the measured tones of a Harvard academic, proposed before an audience what some described as the "Voltairean" idea that economic growth brings "moral positives." Today, with only my own observation to guide me, I would argue that the reverse is equally true.

In the 12 months ended last December the gross domestic product declined a staggering 6.2 percent and now everywhere you go there is the language of the hustle. The phone company, the banks, the major corporations, they're all chiseling, double-dealing and outright lying at every turn, as if they were bookies, drug dealers and pimps.

What does it all remind me of? That used-car dealership portrayed toward the beginning of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. In other words, what's come down to us from the 1930s: the unrelenting flim-flammery oozing from every pore of a society in decay.

What happened then, besides poverty? Lynching. The rise of the Mafia. Father Coughlan, the antisemitic radio priest from Detroit. In Europe there were black shirts and brown shirts and blue shirts marching all about; and millions of bullets expended on the back of someone's head.

That is why we must risk everything to pull ourselves out of this economic disaster. We humans are a selfish, materialist species that becomes meaner when times are leaner.


heartinsanfrancisco said...

Yes, it would be lovely if humankind became truly charitable during times of lack and realized that we are all in this together and so-forth.

But it doesn't. It becomes desperately afraid of losing its own share and mobilized to protect it to the death. We are not the kindest of species, although there are notable exceptions like Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama.

Have you ever read a rather obscure play called "The World We Live In" by Josef and Karel Capek, which portrays beetles rolling giant balls of dung uphill, proud of their "nest eggs?" Slightly off-subject, but it came to mind while I was reading your post.

Anne said...

I agree with you, C, that poverty increases crime ... it seems to complement the repugnant acts and negligence of the tsarist-like wealthy of our time. It is scary.

Heartinsanf', I don't agree that kindness, compassion and actual "good" deeds are left to a notable few. A lot of folks just do for others what they can and don't do what they can't. So much is privately and quietly done.

An old man of my neighborhood died this week. He lived next door to the bar, actually died in it and his bar-family will be drinking to him after his burial. My sister remembers him accompanying his wife with his extremely disabled stepson to elementary school...years ago. It wasn't just left to the mother.

This week a few voices are indignant on his behalf because it was somehow found out that several women of various degrees of unwealth had cars registered in his name...and apparently he'd given them money here and there, now and then....probably to lots of men and women over the years. He wasn't rich.

It seems to me he must have wanted to help them.