Friday, March 05, 2010

Satisfaction (Sunday Reflections for March 7, 2010)

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? (Isaiah 55, reading for the Third Sunday in Lent)

Since their development in the so-called Axial Age (mid-first millennium BCE), the world’s great religious traditions have all tried to deal with the place of material wants and comforts in human life. More specifically they have addressed the paradox that our pursuit of material prosperity and the happiness we assume it brings often doesn’t make us happy but only more miserable, at least in the long run.

Buddhism teaches that it is desire itself which is the source of human misery. Judaism doesn’t go that far but says that our first desire must be fellowship with God which then trumps all others. As part of that tradition, Christianity and Islam endorse this view. Our unhappiness then, as Isaiah says here, comes from “labor[ing] for that which does not satisfy.” In Jesus words (Matthew 6), “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

In pietistic fashion, such admonitions as these are usually applied individually. We easily imagine a prophet or preacher wagging their fingers at us as our conscience joins in the accusation: Yes, I really am too greedy, too materialistic, too selfish, etc., etc. In fact, it is not at all clear that is the intent of this text from Isaiah. More to the point today, it is not at all clear that in the modern world that what you or I individually think or feel is what is really important. For even as modernity has championed the rights and freedoms of the individual, the complexity of modern life has meant that the most important choices and values are those determined collectively through our political and economic structures.

We are in the midst of the worst economic convulsion since the Great Depression eighty years ago. It has not resulted in the same depth of unemployment or business collapse but it is likely to persist for years to come. The problem, in the view of many economists, is that the recovery cannot take the form of a “bounce back” to what was before because what was before was unsustainable.

In fact, our economic problems have been decades in the making. This “Great Recession” is largely the result of previous attempts to cover over those problems rather than confront them directly. The fear is that we will make the same mistake again in trying to pull out of this downturn. It could happen, however, because there is no consensus on what the real solution ought to be.

As a result, we hear politicians and TV financial pundits saying that economic recovery will occur when consumer spending and home construction increases. However, there is near unanimous agreement that both of these things are what got us into trouble in the first place. Because real income has been flat for over a decade, consumer spending growth in recent years has been largely debt fueled via credit cards and home equity loans. Home construction was artificially stimulated by too-easy credit and the real estate asset bubble which, of course, has now collapsed.

In short, much of the economic prosperity of the past ten years (at least) has been smoke and mirrors. Most of the proposals to return to economic prosperity are more smoke and mirrors. Most people seem to realize this and are really angry about it but they don’t know either what’s to be done. Compounding this anger has been the spectacle of Wall Street “banksters” hauling off billions in bonuses, even while knowing they are only in business because of taxpayer supplied bailouts.

In Olive Stone’s 1987 movie Wall Street, bankster poster boy Gordon Gekko declares unambiguously that “greed is good.” The events of the past few years have shown that is certainly the philosophy of Wall Street and of the international lords of finance. Over the past thirty years or so, it very nearly became the philosophy of American culture generally and of much of the developed—and developing—world.

Suddenly, however, things have gone wrong, perhaps very wrong. Will we just “bounce back”? Should we even try to? For decades we have been told that it would be impossible for the whole world to have an American standard of living. Can we really be surprised that the rest of the world is nonetheless trying to do just that, and with increasingly ominous consequences? Can we really be upset when gas prices go up because now hundreds of millions of other people want to drive cars, burn lights, run air conditioners, and fertilize their crops just like we do?

Proponents of our current economic system paint any alternative as a formula for gloom and stagnation. Of course, such proponents have almost all been handsomely rewarded by that system. “Greed is good” because greed leads to growth—but what kind of growth? As Gordon Gekko’s skeptical protégé Bud Fox asks him, “How many yachts can you water-ski behind? How much is enough?” How many miles of highways, how many shopping malls, how many square feet of yard and house, how many toys and electronic gizmos do we need? How much is enough? And, as Isaiah asks, do they “satisfy”?

Yet we are being told that we all need to get out there and start buying and building like before or the economy will never “recover.” But as any doctor knows, there are different types of recoveries and they are not all equally desirable. Indeed some kinds of recoveries are short-lived and unsustainable.

Most of our political and economic leaders know only this tune, however. It’s all they ever learned. And that’s probably true for most of us. Yet the signs are growing more numerous and more ominous that we, collectively, have to learn a new way of doing this thing we have called “the good life.”

How much do we need to be truly satisfied? Do we really even know what that means? And can we live a satisfied life which also allows everyone else to do the same without endangering the health of this planet we all share? When the conventional answers don’t work then it’s time to consider some unconventional answers, perhaps even some very ancient ones.


Anonymous said...

It was a fun ride while it lasted. We can survive the pyramid collapse. It's time for a new "Great Generation". I saw this coming years ago and went into industrial research (chemistry) to help make our impact less. Our ingenuity and creativity got us much further than I ever thought it would (back pat). It's time for our spiritual sides to be as valuable, and it would only help fix the rest. David Mc

Doug said...

I genuinely fear things are much worse than most people realize. The global economy is still spectacularly out of wack but the financial powers-at-be are all frantically trying to hide this reality: "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." As for the environment, the signs certainly aren't encouraging. Like the Titanic, we can't turn this on a dime. By the time everyone agrees something genuinely needs to be done, it will be almost certainly too late to prevent some of the serious consequences. Still, you can't give up trying or believing there is the possibility of meaningful change.

Anonymous said...

Titanic was sad, but they had lifeboats and survivors. David Mc