Friday, November 21, 2008

If Only We Wished Each Other a Merry Christmas

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. In a WSJ editorial today he tells us that the current financial meltdown is linked to our politically correct inability to say "Merry Christmas":
Notwithstanding the cardboard Santas who seem to have arrived in stores this year near Halloween, the holiday season starts in seven days with Thanksgiving. And so it will come to pass once again that many people will spend four weeks biting on tongues lest they say "Merry Christmas" and perchance, give offense. Christmas, the holiday that dare not speak its name.

This year we celebrate the desacralized "holidays" amid what is for many unprecedented economic ruin -- fortunes halved, jobs lost, homes foreclosed. People wonder, What happened? One man's theory: A nation whose people can't say "Merry Christmas" is a nation capable of ruining its own economy.
After giving us a a brief overview of the "great unraveling" of the economy he gives us a more serious explanation for his opening remarks:
Amid all these downward-pushing pressures, occurring in plain sight, hardly anyone or anything stepped up to brake the fall. What happened?

The answer echoing through the marble hallways of Congress and Europe's ministries is: regulation failed. In short, throw plaster at cracked walls. Trusting the public sector to protect us from financial catastrophe is a bad idea. When the Social Security and Medicare meltdowns arrive, as precisely foretold by their trustees, will we ask again: What were they thinking?

What really went missing through the subprime mortgage years were the three Rs: responsibility, restraint and remorse. They are the ballast that stabilizes two better-known Rs from the world of free markets: risk and reward.

Responsibility and restraint are moral sentiments. Remorse is a product of conscience. None of these grow on trees. Each must be learned, taught, passed down. And so we come back to the disappearance of "Merry Christmas."

It has been my view that the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous. That danger flashed red in the fall into subprime personal behavior by borrowers and bankers, who after all are just people. Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions.

The point for a healthy society of commerce and politics is not that religion saves, but that it keeps most of the players inside the chalk lines. We are erasing the chalk lines.
Please. One name comes immediately to mind every time I read a conservative, religious or secular, making the case that personal virtue is a sufficient "check" on the forces of the market; if only we had more virtuous people, or in this case more virtuous Christian people, we would not be in the predicament we are in. We don't need government regulation; we just need to make more good people.

Reinhold Niebuhr.

I would suggest Henninger pull off his shelf the great American theologian's Moral Man and Immoral Society and turn to page 73 where Niebuhr explains what it is possible for good Christian people to accomplish in society:
All of which means that religion may increase the power and enlarge the breadth of the generous social attitudes, which nature prompts in the intimate circle; but there are definite limits to its power and extension. All men cannot be expected to become spiritual any more than they can be expected to become rational. Those who achieve either excellence will always be a leavening influence in social life; but the political structure of society cannot be built upon their achievement.
Why? Human Nature. Sin. While it may be possible for many individuals to learn to act virtuously within their intimate circles and for a few to rise to truly lofty spiritual insights and love all of humanity, most of us can't do it. We are prone to self-deception and the "spirit" of group-think.

Niebuhr wrote Moral Man, Immoral Society in 1932, in a day when labor unions were involved in pitched battles with industry captains and when segregation was still the "law" of the land. He described with great precision and insight the ability of the privileged classes and whites to deceive themselves about their virtue, their moral superiority, and how keeping the peace and their place in the status quo was vital to the very preservation of the good of humanity and the will of God.

There was no amount of training in the skills of virtue and love that was going to bring about a change of heart and a change in the status quo:
The fact is that the interests of the powerful and dominant groups, who profit from the present system of society, are the real hindrance to the establishment of a rational and just society. It would be pleasant to believe that the intelligence of the general community could be raised to such a height that the irrational injustices of society would be eliminated. But unfortunately there is no such general community. There are many classes, all of the partially deriving their perspectives from, or suffering them to be limited by, their economic interest. (213)
No amount of Christian education was going to make everything better. What was required was power set against power. Labor needed to organize itself into a sufficient force to challenge the power of industry. And long before MLK Jr. led a non-violent resistance movement to bring equality to blacks, Niebuhr predicted that this is what it would take. His hope was, in this and all cases where power needed to be brought to bear against power, that the training in Christian virtue and love would keep the struggle from descending into a spiral of deadly violence. But he was under no illusion of what might happen, given the realities of human nature, and what could be accomplished. Justice was possible, but a struggle for power would be required to bring about justice.

Niebuhr was also under no illusions that organized labor or the yet-to-be organized civil rights movement would be any less prone to self-deception and will-to-power. In The Irony of American History, he would make the same realistic assessment about American power. Even the most democratic nation on earth, that "city on a hill," was prone to self-deception and will-to-power.

The founders, of course, were reading from the same book of human nature and saw the various branches of government acting as a necessary check upon one another's power. Even "good" government can do bad things. So we should have no illusions that a strong government exercising strong government regulation in the market place is without its dangers. Any concentration of power carries within itself the seeds of its own over-reach and destruction.

The point is, though, that we live in a day when there are enormous global companies and financial institutions whose actions have enormous global consequences. Some of them are no doubt run by personally virtuous individuals. But they are not getting paid to make the world more virtuous or even more just. They are getting paid to make a profit. Sometimes it happens that they use questionable or even illegal means to make that profit. Sometimes it happens that it doesn't seem to be in their best interests to treat workers fairly. If, for example, they can avoid taking any responsibility for paying for the health care of their workers, they will. Sometimes it happens that they bring products to the market that aren't safe.

What is a worker to do? What is a consumer to do? We can appeal to their religious principles. Surely they will act honorably, decently, humanely? Surely they will exercise 'responsibility, restraint and remorse." But what if they don't. They will respond to organized power. The power of organized labor to press for better pay and benefits. The power of the federal government to demand product safety and to regulate the financial markets with the threat of real penalties and punishment for those who cheat.

Now more than ever we need a strong federal government to act as a check on global companies. Now more than ever when it has been revealed that American companies need the federal government and American taxpayers to bail them out, we need to make sure that they use that money not just in their best interests but in our best interests. Regulation is essential.

Do we need more virtuous people? Yes, we always need more virtuous people. They are, as Niebuhr says, leaven in the loaf. But we also need a little dose of realism.

Happy Holidays!

1 comment:

ProgressiveChurchlady said...

I say that this is the year to infuse the world with huge doses of A Christmas Carol!

We should be reading it aloud, acting it out, playing whatever movie version you own can rent of his timeless story of the power of love over greed and redemption of the living.

And if Dickens three ghosts can't work their magic on a whole bunch of stone cold hearts this holiday season, well, Bah, Humbug to us all!

We can always start out the new year singing "Power to the People" instead!