Tag Archives: The Love of Money

When Money Speaks, the Truth is Silent

Reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money has solidified a long-held conviction: I simply don’t trust people who revere money and the attainment of wealth as a two-pronged highest good. Blame it on my stolid religious upbringing – a number of the Hebrew prophets and their protegé from Nazareth taught the same conviction, and my parents exemplified it to me and my siblings in their actions and speech. Mayer exposes the fallout of the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision that deemed corporations free-speech enabled persons. It’s not so much that ExxonMobil and Walmart have kicked in millions to the political process, Mayer says, but that excessively rich Americans – like the Koch brothers and George Soros, and a few others – are increasingly commandeering the process. Their massive financial contributions, through various “social welfare organizations,” is what she calls “dark money.” Those scummy and scathing political television ads, mailers, and social media ads – produced by “Shadow Group 501(c)(4)” or some such entity – that invade your space right before an election? Produced by non-profits that shield donor names from public knowledge, they promote the political agenda of donors via their unlimited contributions – questions rarely asked. Mayer documents that dark money spending has increased exponentially since the Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote in favor of Citizens United, a 501(c)(4) organization that promotes a conservative political agenda. Not only has the 2010 decision opened the door to dark money’s influence on elections, but also to rogue players like Russia.

Mayer argues that our commitment to the greatly cherished American attribute of liberty can go too far. The increasing lack of transparency in our political process threatens collective liberty. I’m not saying that money is bad or that people who have it (most all of us reading this post) are bad, either. Money, simply put, is one of the principal entities that can magnify the human propensity for good and for evil. Money implements and supports actions that uplift common good, but it also had a dark side. As I argue in my 2014 book, Just a Little Bit More, egalitarianism – equal opportunity, helping to mitigate imbalanced inputs that lead to outcomes of blatant inequality – is the foil that keeps liberty honest. I’ll call upon a Russian saying that aptly applies: When money speaks, the truth is silent. 

Gilded Age partisans John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, with their never before realized and gargantuan gains in wealth, gave a new permission to modern American society: to leave its egalitarian foundations behind. Rockefeller and Carnegie, in their defense, sensed the responsibility to redistribute their vast fortunes and acted upon it. What’s different today? As egalitarianism’s influence has faded, a number of today’s wealthiest sense no responsibility to redistribute their gains but instead use these gains to influence the political arena to their own benefit – the Koch brothers, as Mayer argues, being the most arrant example. Common good, in this post-Citizens United age, has become a private rather than a public ideal where freedom is narrowly defined (incorrectly) as the making of money, and wealthy and corporate interests are able to act with impunity. Mayer quotes the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin: “Total liberty for the wolves is death for the lambs.”

Citizens United is helping to crush the moderate voice in the political realm, notably on the Republican side of the aisle. Mayer quotes Lee Drutman, of the New America Foundation: “The more Republicans depend upon 1% of 1% donors, the more conservative they tend to be.” The Kochs’ preferred brand of cutthroat libertarianism, an outlier a generation ago, is ascendant today with its anti-government, anti-tax, anti-regulation, and anti-climate agenda. It has a few common intersections with Donald Trump’s populist nationalism, but is decidedly distinct from it. These two groups are out for the soul of the Republican party – moderate Republicans like John Kasich and Lisa Murkowski be damned.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that societies of increasing affluence tend to become more individualistic, jeopardizing their social cohesion. Sacks’s description perfectly frames the American society of the past thirty-five years, and helps explain its rising rates of inequality. Mayer fingers Steven Schwarzman and Charles Schwab as players on the Koch brothers’ dark money team, using their wealth politically to further serve their personal economic interests.

Conversely, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet, in the spirit of Rockefeller and Carnegie from a generation ago, understand the responsibility inherent to great riches. Philanthropy is not the greatest good, but its proper practice remains vital until that utopian day arrives when political and economic systems produce wealth sufficient for all of its members.

 

T. Carlos Anderson is a pastor and writer based in Austin, Texas. His first book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago). JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

 

 

 

 

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What Phil Gramm and Mr. Krabs Have in Common

PhilGrammKRABS_EA_copy

The following post is adapted from the book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good.

 

Congressional Republicans and Democrats differ in a number of ways, but they are essentially united when it comes to uncritical acceptance of the ways of Wall Street. Whereas roughly 1 percent of Americans are millionaires (as of 2010), 50 percent of US representatives and senators are categorized as such. Phil Gramm, who retired from the Senate in 2002, was a card-carrying member of the millionaires’ club while serving on Capitol Hill. He most memorably was on record naming Wall Street “a holy place.” To be wealthy is not an indictment; but to imagine one’s wealth does not affect the way one votes, especially concerning issues involving personal financial interests, is naïve. As an old Russian proverb states, “When money talks, the truth is silent.”

My son and I went to see the SpongeBob SquarePants Movie when it came out in 2004. He was twelve years old; the movie had something for both generations, as the theater was evenly populated by kids and their parents. SpongeBob is the main character in one of the most popular animated cartoons of the first decade of the 2000s. The series features a number of lead characters (all sea creatures); a handful of Internet bloggers revel in the alleged representation of the seven deadly sins in seven recurring characters of the show. Restaurant owner Mr. Krabs (who is, yes, a crab) is especially fond of money, both its procurement and its retention. In the movie, Mr. Krabs decides to open a second restaurant adjacent to his original one. At its grand opening, he confesses his love for money with an interviewer, as he is asked what inspired him to duplicate his efforts. He answers the question instinctively with one word: “Money.”

Sometimes it’s a jolt that comes from a change of scenery – in this case a cartoon – that helps one to hear the truth loud and clear. The implied mocking of Mr. Krabs’s greed drew one of the largest laughs in the theater that day; even children are able to recognize that the inordinate love of money skews a person’s – or a crab’s – perspective.

Phil Gramm cosponsored the 1999 repeal (proudly signed into law by President Clinton) of the landmark Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act that had separated the activities of commercial banks and security firms. The repeal is now widely considered to be a primary culprit in the 2007-08 economic swoon. Gramm never anticipated the economic demise that he helped create. Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with opening a second business or wanting to construct an environment where jobs and capital proliferate. But to be shrewd to the ways of greed is an elusive wisdom.

Gramm was blinded by his love for money – that which he has in common with Mr. Krabs.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

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Donald Trump and the Value We Attribute to Wealth

The Donald is on a roll – a white roll, that is. Mexicans and other Latinos are saying “ya basta” – that’s enough.

I pastor a dual-language congregation in Texas. The Donald has given me, for a number of Sundays now, a comical entry into my Spanish sermón. Don’t get me wrong – we don’t focus or even dawdle on partisan politics in Spanish worship at St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran in Austin, but we do talk about what’s happening in society. And The Donald is happening . . .

America is the land of opportunity. And part of that opportunity has been achieved, up to the current day, on the backs of cheap (or enslaved) labor. African slaves and immigrants, Chinese and other Asians, Irish, Italians, Swedes, Germans, Poles, Greeks, Mexicans, Iranians, and many others have put in long days and nights working the land, the factories, the shipyards, the foundries, the slaughterhouses, the ports, the warehouses, the kitchens, the taxis and shuttle buses. America is the land of slaves who came against their own will. America is the land of indigenous natives who were pushed aside – many of these exterminated. America is the land of immigrants, many who came possessing not much more than sheer will. And still, America is the land of opportunity for many – it’s more than a cliché; it’s a vital reality.

America, a great country and society, is far from perfect. We’ve yet to attain “liberty and justice for all.” But as we continue forward on our societal journey, we seem to be making more progress than not.* We value family and friendships, hard work, second chances, accomplishments, and successes.

But here’s where it starts to get complicated. We also revere the attainment of wealth as one of our highest social values. This value has taken Donald Trump to the top of the polls. Yes, he talks tough and is hitting a nerve with a small segment of our society (very white) that wants to fix our immigration issues with deportations and walls. But because he is rich – fabulously so, just listen to him tell you – he has POTUS potential. He claims that he’s “the most successful person to ever run for president.” Mitt Romney’s nomination four years ago, in part, can be attributed to the same evaluation.

Americans equate wealth with success. According to University of Michigan philosophy professor Elizabeth Anderson, this evaluation can be very narrow and limiting – essentially, anti-freedom. I call it un-egalitarian. Check out this brief, yet insightful interview (linked here) by veteran journalist Sam Pizzigati with Dr. Anderson (no relation) on the Inequality.org website e-newsletter Too Much.

Talking about societal values, Anderson says, “I’m wary of any society that reduces success to a single definition. If a society is free, people will pursue different conceptions of the good and define success in different ways. They won’t be unified around a single common definition of success any more than they would be unified around a single religion” (italics mine).

According to Anderson, the primary problem with this single definition of success is that those who are not wealthy are seen to be failures. Secondary problems include overconsumption (by the rich and poor alike, trying to keep up and measure up) and wealth accumulation by questionable means. Value extraction that is harmful to people and communities, and the environment, is permitted because the higher goal of wealth accumulation is served. That’s a problem.

A society that worships wealth accumulation is one in need of a recalibration of its values. Wealth is good, unquestionably; but its unfettered pursuit portends societal decline. A successful society is one that is diversified in its understanding of good and doesn’t allow wealth to siphon upward. Anderson calls inheritance taxes the most just in the world, because they mitigate against the establishment of a permanent upper-class.

Teachers, soldiers, nurses, mechanics, child care workers, cops, community organizers, construction workers, kitchen workers, and caretakers will never be paid extravagant salaries. But their work is vital to the flourishing of societal common good. And their work doesn’t extract, but adds value to communities and societies. Our society would not be successful without them, and the many others who serve the common good in their work.

Candidate Trump can harangue Mexican and other Latino immigrants all he wants. It’s unconvincing, however. Most all of the Mexican and Latino immigrants (and their sons and daughters) that I know in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio – and in other places in this country – are adding value to their communities and to this society.

And, in the end, despite all his wealth, the haranguing will not win Mr. Trump a national election in twenty-first century America.

 

*Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Taylor Branch’s Trilogy on the King Years, among other distinguished works of history, help to tell a fuller representative story of American history.

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!

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“Let’s All Make Lots of $$$”

The following is an excerpt from the book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, to be published May 1, 2014. This excerpt comes from chapter 6 – “Excess.”

The plane neared its destination; we looked out the window with excitement. Halfway expecting to see tumbleweeds and brown stretches of barren land, we saw green terrain and trees—lots of trees. My wife and I, both from the Land of Lincoln, were flying to Houston for my first interview at a church; it was 1990 and neither of us had been to Texas before. We were pleasantly surprised by what we saw out the plane window. The particular Texas stereotype that we brought with us, constructed of sagebrush and desert, was crushed by reality. Houston was lush and—as we would find out later—got its fair share of rain. Over the plane’s intercom, the friendly Continental Airlines flight attendant, complete with Texas twang, informed us of the local time and temperature. What we heard next, however, from our hospitable hostess shockingly showed us that not all our Texas stereotypes would be poleaxed: “Y’all have fun in Houston and hope y’all make lots of money!” My wife and I looked at each other with mouths agape, our faces betraying abject disbelief over what we had just heard. Did she really just say that? Our Upper-Midwest sensibilities took a direct hit; we wondered, what awaited us in this land of big profits and tall talk?

Truth be told, that jarring introduction to Texas more than twenty years ago didn’t scare us away. We love it in Texas—and for many reasons: the people, the mix of cultures and traditions, the food, the opportunities. Texas is unique historically; a big part of that history is commercial boldness. When we came to Houston in the early 1990s, low crude oil prices had made parts of the city go bust. Earlier, when the rest of the country suffered economically because of the Middle East oil embargo, Houston boomed. High oil prices were and are good for Houston; the romance of the energy business is reflected in its sprawling urban geography and lack of zoning laws. Houston, in the words of Enron chroniclers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, was “wide open to opportunity and worshipful of money.”* Houston hasn’t changed. In 2011 Forbes named Houston the fastest growing millionaire city in America. The reason? It’s still oil and gas.

*Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, Penguin (2003), 1.

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing (2014), 132. All rights reserved. Paperback edition available at http://www.blueocotillo.com.

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Remembering Ambrose of Milan

The great religious systems of the world – and many regional indigenous strains – weave a harmonious montage in their admonitions against greed and materialism. This blog post is the first in a series highlighting religious unity against the type of values seen in the dominant religion of the land: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. These posts are adapted from the book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available in May 2014.

Ambrose served the populace in good manner as the governor of Milan, by appointment of the Roman emperor. When the bishop of Milan died in 373 CE, popular acclaim demanded Ambrose take the seat of bishop . . . except Ambrose had no interest in the ecclesial appointment. He even tried – unsuccessfully – to escape Milan to avoid the appointment. He quickly acceded however, and was baptized, ordained, and consecrated as bishop in a whirlwind eight-day process. A rare moment in church history: quick movement.

Ambrose wasn’t perfect (like Martin Luther later, he was involved with indiscretions against Jews) but he was adept at speaking truth to power. A riot in Thessalonica (modern day Greece) led to the death of the appointed Roman governor in that city. Emperor Theodosius, incensed at this outburst of disorder, ordered swift retaliation – even though Ambrose counseled the emperor toward patience and investigation. The bishop’s advice went ignored; retaliation came with the massacre of 7,000 Thessalonians. Later on, when Theodosius travelled to Milan, he attempted to enter church to celebrate mass. Ambrose stopped the emperor at the door and confronted him: no communion for the emperor until he repented of his sin. Remember, these were the days before widespread understanding of democratic sharing of power; Ambrose’s position was most vulnerable. Ambrose stood his ground, communion was withheld, and the emperor eventually repented. Theodosius later decreed a thirty-day wait period before executions were carried out in sentences of death.

Ambrose had an innate sense that clergy were called not only to confront abusive power, but to seek justice in support of the weak against the strong. From his Duties of the Clergy: “God has ordered all things to be produced, so that there should be food in common for all, and that the earth should be a common possession for all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for a few” (italics mine). Rush Limbaugh, modern-day free market fundamentalist and bard of inequality, recently described the teachings of Pope Francis as “pure Marxism.” Sorry, Rush – Ambrose pre-dates Marx significantly and Pope Francis is simply propounding the historic social doctrine of the church. Ambrose helped to formulate it more than 1600 years ago: the church feeds the hungry and seeks to influence those whose decisions affect the greater common good.

Remembering Ambrose of Milan – who died Easter Sunday, April 4, 397 – teacher, preacher, composer of hymns, who stood for social justice in the face of inequality.

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