Put Virtue on Your Visa—Why Did Christians Go on a No-Money-Down, High-Interest  Shopping Spree?

People say that the best cure for a hangover is a hair of the dog that bit you. The people who say that are typically alcoholics. They’re using the logic of an addict, whose reason has been fried by a short-circuit in the pleasure-centers of the brain. Such people think it’s funny when they fall down at a parish Christmas party (even if they’re the Monsignor), when they puke on your champagne colored carpet (“Good thing that’s what I was drinking!”), when they shout some slur that gets you into a fight with numerous ethnic strangers—and they’ll probably think it’s funny when, one morning in the shower, their liver slides out of their ass.

And that, boys and girls, is what happened to our economy. As it lies there on the porcelain, we want to pick it up and put it back but we’re scared it might just dissolve. Anyway, the process would probably hurt. Do we really need it?

But that’s really what it means, when the Magi of either party discuss the need for an “economic stimulus,” or financial journalists worry about the decline in consumer spending—by consumers who are losing their jobs. Just to break things down: This winter our country crashed into a wall because of our addiction to spending money we haven’t got for stuff we don’t need. We overdosed, ran through our stash, and now we’re thrashing around in a cold turkey withdrawal—but here comes that nice man with the methadone….

Economy. The word, which comes from a Greek term for household management, once had a connotation, now obsolete—or anyway unfamiliar to professional economists: “Economy” meant the careful, prudent stewardship of resources—and was used sometimes when speaking of an author whose language was terse and concise. Hence Hemingway might be praised for his “economy of expression.”

I know it sounds strange today, when economists earn their bread by serving as experts in stimulating demand for goods and services, fueled by expansive credit and the incessant printing of money. But words can change their meaning—just as “diverse” now means “non-white,” “special” means “retarded,” and Nietzsche’s Gay Science refers, it seems, to AIDS research. Or maybe a lab that churns out poppers.

“Economy” also turns up in traditional manuals of theology, as in the “economy of salvation.” This has nothing to do with bingo, sending food stamps to Reverend Ike, or selling indulgences, but rather with God’s plan for managing the household of the Church. The analogy breaks down here, as analogies do, since we also know economy as the “science of managing scarcity.” That problem doesn’t apply to God, whose graces are superabundant. Although sometimes it seems that scarcely anyone is interested in them—which if true would give rise to the “negative outcome” known as the “fewness of the saved.”  But I digress.

No, in fact, I don’t. We’re facing a major meltdown of the economy after eight years of governance by the president whose base was—to put things baldly—orthodox Christians. Pro-lifers, patriots, hard-working types who aren’t sitting by the pool clipping coupons, or out at the Palm Beach Country Club recruiting their friends for a billion-dollar pyramid scheme. You know, the people David Frum is kicking to the curb for daring to vote for his candidates. Just as we must examine our consciences for the damage we did to Iraq, we who supported Republicans must take responsibility for the policies we enabled, the lifestyles we led. We urgently need to examine them all in the light of the faith we profess, and figure out a new way for our country to do its business—one that’s a little more… Christian. Or at any rate, rational.

Does it surprise any of you what happened when Sarah Palin got her RNC expense account, and went hog wild at Neiman Marcus? It’s the same thing that happens to good-hearted, church-going folks who win the lottery—and end up nearly broke, cut off from their friends, within a decade. What is missing from the equation is a virtue that our churches have long stopped preaching, since it’s even more countercultural and unpopular than Chastity—namely, Thrift. In Plato’s Republic this appears as the governing virtue of the class he calls (with some disdain) the “producers,” who’d be ruled by the philosophers commanding the soldiers.

And Thrift has gotten short shrift at various points through the centuries—since it’s easy to confuse it with stinginess, with the niggling, ungenerous spirit Jesus saw in the worst of the Pharisees. The greatest saints we remember are those who embraced voluntary poverty, selling all they had and giving it to the poor. St. Benedict lived for a year in Rome in a cell the size of a coffin. (I’ve crawled inside it, and bought a key chain at the gift shop for five euros; it broke.) The “Mendicant Orders,” beginning with St. Dominic, combated the Albigensian condemnation of the world with a renunciation all their own. The lavish wealth of post-plague Italy drove St. Francis of Assisi to cast off his clothes in the public square, dramatizing his love affair with “Lady Poverty.” The Theatine order that preceded the Jesuits in launching the Counter-Reformation took poverty so seriously, it refused to solicit donations—relying solely on whatever gifts God sent over the transom.

It’s easy to recklessly equate such an embrace of the poverty of the apostles with an aristocratic disdain for financial prudence. In a famous essay, “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Spirit,” Catholic historian Christopher Dawson does just that—elevating the spirit of the saint and (curiously) of the soldier over that of the solid burgher. Sensible about so many other historical and cultural questions, here Dawson commits to print the following howler: “[T]he ethos of the Gospels is sharply opposed to the economic view of life and the economic virtues. It teaches men to live from day to day without taking thought for their material needs.” If this simplistic reading of Jesus’ complex statements about material wealth were accurate, Christianity could never have built a civilization that lasted 15 years, much less 1,500. Indeed, no father of a family has any business adopting the attitude appropriate to a friar—as the Church recognized, encouraging people throughout the Middle Ages to delay marriage until they had the means to support and educate their children. She also condemned as heretics the “Spiritual Franciscans” who tried to impose the great saint’s poverty on laymen, on penalty of mortal sin.

A better, more balanced picture than Dawson offers of the proper interaction among the human faculties of work, prayer, and play can be found in the writings of the German philosopher Josef Pieper, whose classic Leisure: The Basis of Culture rejects the pragmatic materialism he saw rising in postwar Europe, but maintains a Thomist respect for the virtue of Thrift—which is simply the governing virtue of Prudence, as applied to the management of money.

Anyway, the practical result of refusing to preach the importance of prudence in managing wealth, or respect the honest efforts of “vulgar tradesmen” who do the hard work of matching up customers with products, is not necessarily an abundance of saints like Francis of Assisi. Given man’s fallen condition, it is far more likely to generate economic stagnation, the fatalistic acceptance of tyrannical, exploitative government, and a vulgar flashiness on the part of the rich: Renaissance cardinals showering urban mobs with bags of gold made up out of widows’ mites, monarchs like Louis XIV constructing elaborate chateaus and embarking on useless wars for the sake of “glory,” and endemic corruption such as still prevails in Southern Italy. And by the way, when’s the last time you met a Theatine?

Of course, the bourgeois spirit of Thrift can be taken to its own ugly extreme. If Max Weber’s picture of Calvinist culture is in any way accurate, the “iron cage” of Thrift and rational planning can crush the human spirit. According to Weber, the Calvinist doctrine that it’s impossible to influence one’s own eternal salvation, or even know if you’re one of the Elect, had the perverse effect of secularizing Protestant Europe—turning human energies outward, into spheres of life where one could make a difference, and expect a predictable outcome for one’s hard work, namely, the acquisition of wealth. The rigid dichotomy between spiritual passivity and economic planning put an intolerable strain on the souls of Europeans—and generated wild, antinomian reactions like Romanticism. And anything that can lead, even indirectly, to the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, clearly bears watching.

The conflict between the aristocratic and bourgeois spirits can be seen in exaggerated form in the famous lines Orson Welles spoke in The Third Man: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Of course, we postmodern Americans don’t like to have to choose between stark extremes. When faced with two opposing vices, we aim for the golden mean—and combine the worst features of each. In the past 30 years, we have somehow managed to meld the financial fecklessness appropriate to medieval Italian mystics with the grim acquisitive spirit of Kierkegaard’s Danish burghers. And we managed this through the alchemy of debt; instead of developing the patience that comes with deferred gratification, and relying on wealth accumulated by savings to finance our pleasures—we simply borrowed the money. We wanted plenty of weapons to win the Cold War, and borrowed the money. (Fair enough—it needed winning. But why are we still outspending the rest of the planet combined for arms to fight the Soviets?) We wanted social programs that made us feel generous toward the poor, so we borrowed the money. We want to fight wars in the Middle East, and finance elaborate schemes to micromanage education across the country from Capitol Hill, so we… You get the idea.

Indeed, whenever Americans start to show some realization of their true financial condition, and cut back on their spending, the government panics and expands the money supply. Sometimes it simply cuts every American a check, mailing it out in the form of a “stimulus.” One worry that was expressed the last time this happened—and I’m not kidding, folks—was the danger that Americans might not spend their checks, but instead might (God forbid) save them.

We seem to have forgotten the Econ 101 axiom that investments come from savings—that is, wealth compiled through deferred gratification, in the hope of increased future returns. Instead, we imagine that borrowing money to keep the economy whirring—to keep us giving each other pedicures and serving each other peppermint lattes—will generate wealth sufficient to pay off our tab…someday. When would “someday” come? What imaginable events could bring the binge to an end?

This could come about in one of three ways:

a) Human nature could change radically, and the vices of selfishness, intemperance, sloth and avarice all disappear—for instance through the election of a black president. (“A Change We Can Believe In.”)

b)We could wake up to the fact that we’re not really borrowing the money for our trips to The Body Shop from the Chinese, but from our children. Instead of storing up wealth for them (like those despicable Swiss burghers), or remaining celibate like those Franciscans, we are storing up IOUs our kids will have to pay off. A large-scale moral renewal could result from this realization, and Americans could start once again to save rather than spend. This would hurt the consumption sector of the economy, but the folks down at the mall would find new jobs in the productive industries financed by the savings we accumulated.

c)Foreign lenders could finally realize that we are a nation of compulsive gamblers wearing diapers in front of slot machines (so we don’t need to use the rest room) and they could cut off our credit. Then the whole Ponzi scheme would collapse. 
We picked c).

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