Finance wields an immediate and immense power; but it is like the power of a spell or spoken charm. The victim of the magician…is always partly to blame for his own paralysis. — G.K. Chesterton
In the summer of 1979, President Jimmy Carter gave a prophetic speech, appropriate for today, warning of a crisis of confidence in the United States striking at the very heart and soul of a nation slowly forgetting its purpose. Threatened with losing our identity, our unity, and our faith, we were cautioned by this president against replacing the value of “what one does” with “what one owns.” He feared the worst: the worship of consumption was eroding a country once characterized by sacrifice, thrift, and spiritual pursuit. This materialism, according to Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, menaced the West and could not be recommended as an alternative to the troubles in the East. Our rally cry of “eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die” silently chipped away at our spiritual foundation and blurred our definitions of needs and wants at the expense of our souls.
What happened? Part of the problem began in the early 1970s, when productivity soared while wages stagnated for the one-income family. In the years that followed, more family members were put to work to compensate. But by the 1980s, what we thought was prosperity was actually plastic, and by 1998, the family wage officially flat-lined. Finance “generously” helped us shop the excess supply of goods and services. Consumer credit flowed like a river. Houses were bought and flipped at such an alarming rate that prices shot up five times their value. By the time our debt exploded, it was clear that our system burned credit to feed the locomotive of consumption. In 2007, the average household debt per person reached $45,000. That same year the family’s percentage of disposable income dropped to its lowest levels since prior to the Second World War. Low wages, the rising costs of housing and education, and debt trampled the household.
Today, our $15 trillion debt (and recent downgraded credit rating) is buzzing from the Beltway to Starbucks. But political ideologues cannot see the trees for the forest or the forest for the trees. The debt isn’t really a problem. Our inability to pay it is the problem. As author John Médaille shrewdly points out:
Our problem is not with the debt, but with jobs and with the balance of payment accounts. If the 15 million looking for work had work there would be no problem with the debt. But instead, this meaningless debate has kept our real problems off the agenda.
The real problem is that the less we manufacture, the less we employ people to do the work. No production and no jobs mean no revenue. And without income, government turns to finance to cover its operations and the social imbalances. A non-productive nation cannot sustain a debt economy anymore than the home economy can borrow to absorb the cost of everyday necessities.
The other problem is our failure to admit the ship is sinking. Finance capital kept the magic going but the illusion couldn’t mask an unworkable system. Just as socialists refused to admit the unsustainable and ubiquitous effects of socialism, capitalists continue to present our condition as an aberration, rather than capitalism’s natural course.
Once again, we propose that the real answer is to chuck the false band-aids (raise the debt ceiling, cut taxes) and look forward to another model that will strip our nation of its addiction to consumption and lessen the expenses and proportion of the State. G.K. Chesterton promoted such a system. It is called Distributism.
Let’s ask ourselves a few questions. Can we honestly say that Left and Right thinking are really meaningful? Should we continue to look to the Beltway and Wall Street to solve our problems, or is our future best served by decentralized, local economies? Can we take seriously the criticism, “an economy run by Christian principles would destroy both the economy and the reputation of Christianity,” given that our secular economy is doing a great job of eliminating both? Isn’t it time to consider another path, one truly reflective of our faith and virtue?
As J.R.R. Tolkien reminds us, these are difficult times but they are chosen for us. Just as our grandfathers once faced hard choices, let us be remembered as the men and women who resurrected the economy of “many small places and many local heroes.” We can choose a dawn where the lives of the unborn are protected and big families are cherished, where our neighbors are seen as “Christ…lovely in eyes not his,” and politics is guided by millions of human faces. We want an economy highlighted by the rights of God, advanced by the virtues in our minds and the prayers in our hearts. Tomorrow we will thrust charity against appetite, and although our numbers are small, men and women everywhere will rebuild with “the breastplate of faith and charity, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”
Memories are short but the families who rise to meet these challenges will remember, to the envy of those who stayed behind, and they will tell our posterity how today and the next, through sweat, tears, and fidelity, our brothers and sisters cheerfully shouted, “How thou pleasest, God, dispose the day!” This is the rallying cry of those who do not suffer disadvantages under the conditions of justice and where the unequal conditions of men and women are advantageous. And like a bridge, we will wrap our arms together with the poor, no longer trampled by political half-truths so distant from the fullness of faith, a faith so broad and yet so beautifully narrow, truth so majestic and glorious, and language so joyful and peaceful, that its champion is a lamb.