Monday, December 14, 2009

John the Baptist, Frank Rich, Up in the Air

Yesterday’s gospel reading, from Luke, began this way: “And the multitudes asked [John the Baptist], ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered them, ‘He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none, and he who has food, let him do likewise’. Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than is appointed you’. And soldiers asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages’.” This message seems particularly apt given the difficult economic times that have troubled this country, our southern neighbour, and indeed the world, over the past year.

In an op-ed article in Sunday’s New York Times, columnist Frank Rich marvels at how well the backdrop of the newly released movie Up in the Air “captures the distinctive topography of our Great Recession.” The film’s main character, Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) works for a company that specializes in terminating employees for firms that don’t want to do the dirty work themselves. Mr. Rich notes that Bingham’s victims “are not the familiar contemporary blue-collar factory workers in our devastated manufacturing economy. They are instead mostly middle-class refugees from the suburban good life depicted in credit card ads. Their correlative to the Dust Bowl [of the Great Depression era] is a coast-to-coast wasteland of foreclosed office spaces where desk chairs and knots of dead phones lie abandoned in a fluorescent half-light.”

Rich believes that the current Great Recession is darkly characterized by “the disconnect between the corporate culture that is dictating the firing and the rest of us.” This disconnect existed long before the current troubles began, and there is no question in the columnist’s mind, who is to blame for the beating that Main Street Americans are taking:

The private-equity deal makers who bought and sold once-solid companies like trading cards, saddling them with debt, never saw the workers whose jobs were shredded by their cunning games of financial looting. The geniuses in Washington and on Wall Street who invented junk mortgages and then bundled and sold them as securities didn’t live in the same neighborhoods as the mortgagees, small investors and retirees left holding the bag once the housing bubble burst.

Those at the top are separated from the consequences of their actions. They are exemplified by Robert Rubin, formerly of Citigroup and a mentor to both Obama’s Treasury secretary and chief economic adviser. He
looked the other way when his bank made ruinous high-risk bets, and then cashed out and split, leaving taxpayers to pay for the wreckage while he escaped any accountability. Such economic wise men peer down at the country from a hermetically sealed bubble of privilege and self-interest, much as Ryan does from the plane flying him to his next mass firing. And they tend to think, as Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs notoriously put it, that they are doing “God’s work” to sustain our free-market system.

Before embarking on “God’s work” these guys apparently neglected to read the job description in Luke’s gospel.

I am not an economist, so I cannot comment on the degree of accuracy in Mr. Rich’s indictment of the men at the top of the financial sector. I do not doubt, however, that there are plenty of “small folk” who have been hit devastatingly hard by this recession. For some, it will take a long time to recover the personal financial losses they have suffered, not to mention their relationships, their self-esteem, and their confidence. Some, of course, will never recover. Those of us who have avoided the worst of the recession’s effects, or have escaped altogether, can thank God—or our lucky stars.

Again, I am no expert, but let’s just take it for granted that the big guys are not going to be reading Luke any time soon. Sharing what you have is not generally one of the ways you get rich. Once you have fought your way to the top, you are pretty much concerned with either getting more or with keeping what you have by whatever means available, and you have long forgotten what sharing is all about. As a result of the collapse of the financial sector, the U.S. government is legislating regulations in the hope of preventing a recurrence. I, for one, will not be surprised if the financial institutions find a way around the regulations.

Of course there are wealthy philanthropists and we cannot discount the good they do, but one wonders if real philanthropists are the exception.

So let’s just assume then that in the end the little guy is not going to be protected by the corporate world or by government. Where do we stand? I believe that we stand at a crossroads. We can continue, as we have done for the last fifty years, to be seduced by the corporate world into believing that we need a new car every three years, that a Blackberry or an iPhone suits our lifestyle better than a regular phone, that it’s okay to wait on the line for twenty minutes for customer service only to end up speaking with someone we can’t understand who is going to tell us that we have to box up that printer we bought a month and a half ago and send it to Boise, Idaho and wait three weeks for it to come back. We can carry on working in jobs that are both uninspiring and insecure, often with bosses who consider our value only in terms of their own career advancement—or protection.

As employees and as consumers we have become slaves to the corporate world. As human beings we have become enslaved by our own materialism. Consumerism has made us think that what we want is what we need. We have forgotten how to be still, how to be quiet, how to relax—how to enjoy the non-material side of life. Just look at the state of traffic in our cities: the road rage, the running of red lights, the disregard for pedestrians. Where does this behaviour come from? Think about how we are now connected to the office around the clock and even when we are on vacation. Why do we do this? Well, maybe it’s because we are afraid that if we do not stay connected, we might miss a vital piece of information that could make the difference between a 3% bonus and a 3.5% bonus next year.

If someone were to tell me that the stress and worry involved in acquiring and keeping the material goods in their possession was worthwhile in terms of the happiness or contentment that those goods provided, I would have to smile. We all need a roof over our heads, and we all need a means of transport to get us from A to B. We need clothing and food and education. These must always be our priorities, and if we have children, they are among our greatest responsibilities.

It’s great to be able to watch a favorite movie over and over on DVD, to communicate with distant friends or family by e-mail or instant messaging, to listen to lovely music on a long flight. But is it necessary for us to have the slimmest, sexiest cell phone on the market or to have a device that keeps us connected to e-mail and the web? Do we really have to have ten pairs of shoes? Or twenty? What is the point of a $60,000 kitchen renovation when the new stove does not make the food any more delicious than the old one and the new refrigerator keeps food at exactly the same temperature as the one we replaced at three times the cost?

Which brings me back to Luke and John the Baptist. Shortly after the severity of the current recession became apparent, an article appeared in the New York Times. The article indicated that people who had not been directly affected by the recession, who were still cashing their substantial paycheques every two weeks, were beginning to rethink their lifestyles in light of the suffering they saw the recession bringing to others; in fact, some of those “others” were pretty close to home. The people cited in the article were redirecting some of their disposable income from personal consumption that was not necessary to individuals and groups who were truly in need. And the fact is that we all know people—a sister, a friend, a fellow parishioner who is trying to support her family in a third-world country , a colleague who has been laid off—who are in need.

Corporations exist in order to make a few people very rich. The ordinary people who make a corporation run—employees and consumers—are important only insofar as they contribute to the cause of further enriching the small group at the top. As Frank Rich says of the world depicted in Up in the Air, “Here is an America whose battered inhabitants realize that the economic deck is stacked against them, gamed by distant, powerful figures they can’t see or know.” But does it have to be this way? Is it not possible for us, the small people, to reclaim at least some control over our destiny, over our happiness and over the well-being of our fellow small people?

My favorite scene in Up in the Air is the one in which Ryan Bingham is sitting across from yet another victim of his company’s “services.” Bob is of course very angry and he is crying. He is concerned about what his children will think of him now that he is jobless and unable to provide them with what they need and want. Here is what Ryan does:

RYAN: Your children’s admiration is important to you?
BOB: Yeah. It was.
RYAN: Well, I doubt they ever admired you, Bob.
BOB: (looks up shocked and pissed) Hey, asshole, aren’t you here to console me?
RYAN: I’m not a shrink, Bob. I’m a wake-up call. Why do kids love athletes?
BOB: Because they screw lingerie models.
RYAN: No, that’s why we love athletes. Kids love them because they follow their dreams.
BOB: Yeah, well I can’t dunk.
RYAN: But you can cook.
BOB: What are you talking about?
RYAN: (Picks up Bob’s resume.) Your resume said you minored in French Culinary Arts….How much did they pay you to give up on your dreams?
BOB: (flat) Twenty-seven thousand a year.
RYAN: At what point were you going to stop and go back to what made you happy?
BOB: (simply shrugs)
RYAN: ….I see guys who work for the same company their entire lives. Clock in. Clock out. Never a moment of happiness. (Pauses for effect.) Not everyone gets this kind of opportunity. The chance for rebirth. If not for yourself…do it for your kids.

Bob’s eyes begin to water again. He’s a changed man.

Is Ryan serious about encouraging Bob to go back and follow his dream again or is he just leading him on so he can get him out the door and move on to the next “terminee”? It really doesn’t matter. Bob is hooked back into the dream. Many young people today are like Bob. They are going to abandon their dream—acting, dog training, cooking—to go after the big corporate salary so that they can afford to buy the home of their dreams and drive the car they see in the TV commercial. And perhaps, like Bob, somewhere down the road they will recognize that it was the dream that had value, not the salary, the corner office, and the luxury car.

If we “follow our bliss,” as Joseph Campbell put it, we may not make very much money. The fact is that we do not need to. A 27-inch TV, a good used car, and a three-year old cell phone can cover our needs. Some people do not actually need any of those things. Many of us do not even need to be in the city. So if we do not have to spend so much money, we do not need to break our backs to make so much. And we will have more time for the real pleasures of this life—a home-cooked meal and an evening of conversation or games with friends and family, a night of love-making with our partner or spouse, a game of football with our kids. Or just a quiet evening alone with a book. No guilt, no regrets, no stress.

There is great wisdom in the words of Jesus to the rich young man: “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Of course, none of us is perfect, so we do not have to sell everything we own, but if we follow Jesus (and we do not have to be Christian to do so) and not the way of materialism, we will gain heaven, for heaven is indeed within each of us and thus here on earth. Jesus also said, “I tell you solemnly, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven….it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I am sure that even the most unsophisticated economic mind will say that my ideas are naïve. Perhaps they are. But I do not see that our present economic system has given us anything even close to happiness, and I believe that the recession we have been suffering offers us an opportunity to at least consider taking another path. So if that is naive, I will happily err on the side of naïveté.

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