The heated debates of healthcare, bailouts, banking reform, financial regulation, usury laws, consumer protection, home loan modifications, small business support, social assistance programs-all point to one fundamental issue - the battle for a moral framework. What do we value in America? Easy Money or Hard work? Self-interest or Community? Vengeance or Forgiveness? Indifference or Compassion?
Do we continue to let 45 million Americans suffer without healthcare as long as we have access to it ourselves? Should we protect unsuspecting or reckless consumers or leave them at the mercy of profit hungry scams? Do we let the jobless and homeless fend for themselves because we are comfortable under our own roofs?
In the end, all of these economic debates come down to one thing: love. Love for our neighbor, love for ourselves, love for the planet, love for humanity. Love for those who are starving, hungry, desperate or forgotten. Love for those whose only hope of relief from suffering comes from you and me and our generosity.
A senior manager in finance explained to me that he functions equally on "Christian principles" and devotion to the theories of Ayn Rand. The author of the 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, Rand influenced a generation of market making economists including the two decade Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan. Rand's belief of self-interest over self-sacrifice defined the deregulation doctrine of the last thirty years of government. Yet "Christian principles" revolve around the antithesis of self-interest and focus on community and common good. I asked my friend how he reconciled both conflicting interests, he replied, "self-interest is self-love."
Self-interest is indeed self-love, yet the doctrine leaves out an essential part of the contract, love for one's neighbor. Our financial system for the last three decades has moved to loss of love for our neighbor and gain of love for ourselves - at their expense. We might say the new American doctrine has become, Let the neighbors be damned.
The 20th century was a painful and extraordinary classroom for the human species. Genocides, wars, and revolutions revealed the inherent
conflicts between morality and money.
In America, in the early 1900s, children as young as five toiled in brutally harsh conditions. Laborers worked from sunup until sundown, seven days a week in unofficial indentured servitude. Women and minorities were completely disenfranchised from opportunity and education. Land was stolen from native occupants with government sanctions. Young immigrants were treated like cattle to the slaughter and locked in unsafe sweatshops to extract every bloody cent. The first half of the American century revealed a savage world of human indifference for the sake of profit.
The die had been cast since the young nation's inception and the cruel legalization of human beings as property. Industrialization took over where slavery left off with the sanctimonious cry of "survival-of-the-fittest" in business as a near religious dogma. British philosopher Herbert Spencer introduced rags-to-riches Andrew Carnegie to Darwin's theory of natural selection in finance. Alfred P. Sloan, GM's chairman declared, "The business of business is business." Fifty years later, economist Milton Friedman wrote, "The social responsibility of business is profits." With those proclamations, the dehumanizing of business was official.
Yet business and its patriarchal design forgot one crucial fact: Business is a fundamentally human enterprise. People profit by providing services and products that improve and enhance the lives of other people. How did our ancestors manage to dehumanize something so innately human?
Dogma is a funny thing. We can repeat a concept so many times that we begin to believe it as fact. One unfortunate mantra that defined 20th century finance and the first decade of the 21st was: It's not personal, its business. Yet joblessness and foreclosure rates defy this belief as the human tragedy resulting from these grows greater by the day.
From the 1940s through the 1960s in America, greed as a moral goal would have been solidly rejected. JFK defined the motto of the "greatest generation" with, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Yet two decades later the new "morality of greed" as the definition for success allowed their children to step over the writhing bodies of victims on their way to the top.
The savage view of money and profits that resulted in the subprime mortgage crisis and the "once-in-a-lifetime economic tsunami" that we continue to experience globally, reveals that the old beliefs of self-interest over neighborly love are primitive and unworthy of us as modern people.
Our relentless economic struggles offer us a genuine spiritual opportunity as a nation to reexamine what we believe is "right and wrong." The outcome of the healthcare and financial reform debates will define our moral framework going forward.
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