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Greed isn’t sustainable.

I came across this insight over on the Sojourners Blog the other day:

“Major institutions have crumbled, markets have failed, and trade has ground to a halt. And many would argue that the crisis highlights something bigger: the failure of an ideology.”

– Andy Clasper

Could this economic crisis really signify the failure an entire ideology? If Andy is talking about our cut-throat, every-man-for-himself brand of capitalism, I think he may be right. In fact, I hope he is.

Right now, our economic ideology is to look out for yourself. Give yourself the biggest advantage you can. Do whatever it takes to get promoted, stay ahead of the curve, get paid more. Money is the lifeblood of our culture. It not only keeps our economy fluid, but serves as the primary gauge by which we judge the success of a person, and the overall happiness of ourselves.

I think this ideology has been the Achilles’ heel of our economy. If you think about it, almost every reason why our economy collapsed – lending crisis, foreclosure crisis, excessive risk on Wall Street – can be traced back to human greed.

Maybe it’s the recession, and maybe it’s just because Drea and I are generally strapped for cash, but I’m beginning more and more to see the value in the way my grandparents’ generation lived. I still don’t quite buy the “I had to walk to school uphill both ways in the snow” bit, but maybe our grandparents were on to something. I get the impression that they lived in a healthier society than ours. People cared about each other’s well-being, about the common good of their communities. They also lived within their means. No credit cards, no instant gratification. If you wanted something, you had to wait until you’d saved enough money to buy it. (What a concept!)

Hopefully something as large-scale as this recession will make us realize that a greed-driven ideology isn’t just ungenerous, it’s also unsustainable. President Obama wrote the following in an op-ed released yesterday in anticipation of next week’s G-20 meeting in London:

“We cannot settle for a return to the status quo. We must put an end to the reckless speculation and spending beyond our means; to the bad credit, over-leveraged banks and absence of oversight that condemns us to bubbles that inevitably bust.”

There’s obviously a lot of work and backpedaling to be done, but it’s good to hear that the President doesn’t view this recession as a glitch in an otherwise good system, that he recognizes the need for a fundamental rethinking.

As a nation and as individuals, I hope we come out of this mess with an enhanced confidence in two things: moderation and community. Moderation because certain luxuries are worth giving up for the sake of being able to sleep at night. I’ll take living in a small house and eating cheap meals over “the finer things” anyday if it means not having to stress about money. And community because, well it’s just better than trying to get by on your own (as Solomon would attest).

As bad as this recession seems right now, it might be just the kick in the pants we need in order to pursue a more sustainable ideology.

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9 Responses

  1. Kenny Swanson says:

    Drew,

    I completly agree that American’s should take responsibilty for what they spend and that greed is what got us into this mess. Hower, maybe the new president should take his own advice on spending. He is set to spend more money than both the Iraq & Afghanistan War have cost. The countries deficit will sky rocket and the tax payers will be left to pay it back. I just read an article today that when a child is born in America today, that child already owes $22,000 in taxes due to the presidents spending habits over the past couple months. I guess the president is all for personal responsibility when it comes to his money, but when it comes to America’s money he is clearly very irresponsible with it.

    • Drew says:

      Good points, Kenny. Obama is planning to spend a lot of money, although I wouldn’t say this necessarily makes him irresponsible. The price tag of his budget concerns me, but I’m more interested in how the money will be used. Personally, I’m OK with the government spending money if I can have reasonable confidence it’s being used for programs that in the long run will give us a greater return on the investment (e.g. better public schools, energy independence, etc.). Regardless, I think we should be vigilant in holding Obama accountable for spending this money the way he says he will. But if his methods can actually bring about meaningful improvements, I think it will be worth the price. Then again, I guess this is the great debate right now: will his methods work? Probably too early to tell at this point.

      • Kim J. says:

        I’m the first to admit that economics is not an area of interest for me, which explains why I’ve not devoted more time to studying the different aspects of production and consumption and the effects of both that are currently affecting our way of life. That being said, the only difference I see between Obama’s spending and the “tax relief” that others propose is the controller of the funds. Giving money to state governments for projects that create jobs reduces the government’s coffers–just as tax cuts reduce the government’s coffers. The difference? Tax cuts leave the decisions about how to use funds in the hands of the people, vs. the guaranteed jobs that the current stimulus plan provides.

        Those who subscribe to Adam Smith will say that the money, if put in the hands of the people, will “trickle down” as entrepreneurship spreads and jobs are created. But is that true? Will those who receive the greatest tax cuts (i.e. those who contribute the most) really do the “smart” thing and dump the funds into their businesses, thus growing their businesses and creating jobs? Or will they save the money in case the economy gets worse?

        Those who feel that putting the creation of jobs in the hands of the government is the answer may pause after considering the government’s handling of social security. Appropriation of funds by government officials is inevitably driven by upcoming elections and the need to please contributers to campaigns.

        Sadly, I’m not sure I see either way as a definitive answer, as greed and selfishness seem to exist both in government and in the private sector.

        At this point in my life, after pondering this dilemma (albeit unwillingly) far more than I ever have since it’s a dominant topic right now, I’ll just say that unfettered capitalism is too Darwinistic for me. Someone who cringes watching animals kill each other on the Discovery channel needs a third option.

      • Drew says:

        Kim, I love the points you make here. You put ideas into words extremely well. (You should blog!) The observation you make comparing tax spending and tax relief rings true to me; human greed corrupts either way. I think you’re willingness to see the merits and flaws of both sides is a step in the right direction, and one many die-hard Democrats or Republicans aren’t willing to take.

        Regarding economic injustice (among other global crises), I think you might like McLaren’s book “Everything Must Change”, which I’m reading now. If mainstream Evangelicalism largely ignores the themes of social justice so explicit in Jesus’ message, McLaren addresses them extensively in this book.

        Thanks again for your input!

      • kjanes says:

        Yeah, I recently started a blog, and I admit–it’s somewhat cathartic to write down my thoughts! Not sure I’ll keep it up–we’ll see!

  2. Kenny Swanson says:

    We will definitely have to wait and see for sure. Seeing all those zeros throws a lot of questions out in peoples minds. We can’t undo what is done or spent in this case, but we can pray that good things come out. Good stuff Drew.

  3. janaiha says:

    drew. i love this. i like the shift we are making as a nation toward national community priorities (e.g., health care & education) and individual responsibility. and i think you hit on the main issue which goes beyond any president’s 4-yr agenda (however much i may agree with the bulk of that agenda). it is ultimately an issue of the heart that no budget proposal can cure–it all points back to the cross and how desperately we need Christ.

    so yea…major props.

  4. Derrick says:

    Hi Drew, Janaiha just sent me this link, you cover some of the same issues I do. In regards to our modern “brand” of capitalism, I agree that it is dominated by greed (think the Ayn Rand-style virtues of selfishness philosophy).

    I was actually having this discussion the other night after someone said that some of his friends who made a ton of money by buying and selling houses rapidly were “his heroes.” I told him that I felt their behavior was irresponsible and dishonest and that they have proven, along with the individuals who gave the loans, that they are morally corrupt. I mean, they DESTROYED people’s lives, that is what we are failing to understand. These people who committed the crimes of convincing people that our consumer habits that have made our national debt 100% of GDP have truly ruined more than they know. It is time for a change in politics back from a time when the goal is to A) trick consumers and B) convince us that taking a mortgage on a house for consumption under the false ideas that it will continue to gain value.

    Another thing is that I remember several years ago (when I was in high-school) Pres. Bush said that home ownership rates were skyrocketing and I said, “give it a few years, we will see a crash.” My point here is that, if I could see it, they could too. They just all got caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

    To close, I feel we have had a collapse of the “true” entrepreneurial capitalism which has been replaced by the mixture of consumer capitalism and share-holder capitalism (where the shareholders demand short-term returns from a company and the company CEO in turn stops investing and improving the company).

    • Drew says:

      Derrick,

      I actually found your blog yesterday via Janaiha’s Facebook. It’s cool that you’re interested in urban planning; I imagine there’s a lot of potential there for pursuing more sustainable development. I hear Seattle’s a great town – visited there about 10 years ago, would love to go again sometime.

      Thanks for your thoughts here. I’ll be following your blog as well!

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