Self-Interest

I recall reading years ago a book in ethics that built an entire ethical system out of the notion of self-interest. This was not simply ego-centricity, not raw selfishness. It was self-interest properly understood: enlightened self-interest. If I ask not “what do I want here and now,” but “what will I want in a few day’s time” I begin to see what is in my true self-interest. I will denote the difference by putting caps on the notion of Self Interest properly understood.

On a mundane level, Self Interest translates into “I will scratch your back because there may come a time when I need you to scratch my back.” Thus, if your car breaks down and you need a ride to the garage I will take you there in spite of the fact that I was on my way to the Mall to buy the item I really wanted because it is on special this week and the sale ends today. I really want to go to the Mall, but I realize that it is in my Self Interest to help you out, because there may come a time when I need you to help me out. Conscience may enter into it, or it may not. It may simply be a matter of calculation. But the end result is that I do the right thing. Similarly, if you make me really angry and I want to smack you upside the head, I realize that if I walk away you will still be my friend and we can continue to have fun together. It’s in my Self Interest to swallow my anger and simply walk away and cool off.

A good citizen who is calculating his or her Self Interest will realize that they need to vet each candidate carefully, get out and vote, and continue to keep an eye on the voting habits of the candidates of choice in order to determine whether they deserve to be reelected. He or she will pay taxes because they realize that they will benefit the schools (whether they have kids in the schools or not) and help the state pay for road repair, support fire and police salaries, and keep up the public parks — all of which benefit me in the long run. (Even someone else’s kids will vote and act wisely in the future if they are well schooled, presumably.)  In a word, Self Interest requires taking the long view, considering the consequences of actions and asking the question: what will benefit me in the long term.

The owner of a factory who knows he can save big bucks by neglecting to put scrubbers on his factory’s chimneys takes the view of Self Interest and spends the money for the scrubbers because he realizes that this will improve air quality that benefits the health of those around him, including his employees, and himself and his family as well. Short-term profits are sacrificed for long-term benefits to a great many more people. And, in the end, these are the people that will continue to work for him and will buy his products. The long term always involves a sense that each of us is in a boat with others. It’s not just about me or you: it’s about all of us. What is good for each is good for all. It’s not rocket science, but it takes a bit of imagination and patience and a willingness to think before acting.

At the highest levels, of course, ethics demands that those who make the major decisions that indirectly affect us all require the perspective of Self Interest. It may be in my self-interest (small case) to cheat on my taxes and save a few bucks, put pressure on my political cronies to get them to vote my way, cut health care because it will benefit those few who support my candidacy, fail to fill vacant federal judgeships that stand in the way of my political objectives, or eliminate regulatory agencies because they interfere with profits. But if I step back and take the perspective of Self Interest I realize that paying my taxes, cooperating with my political cronies (whether I like them or not), promoting universal health care, promoting a strong and healthy judiciary, and funding regulatory agencies that protect us all are in my Self Interest: they are in the best interest of all and therefore of myself as well. When we all benefit each of us as individuals benefits as well.

This system is not the be-all and end-all of ethics, but anyone who seeks to follow the path will find that he or she ends up doing the right thing most of the time. It takes imagination and a willingness to ignore short-term desires for long-term benefits. But if each of us followed that path our democracy would be a stronger and healthier political system that does, in the end, help to promote  the Common  Good — which was always the goal of a republican system of government.

Regulations

We live in a time of ferocious de-regulation as the Republican majority in both houses of government in the United States is in positive tizzy to rid the country of those nasty regulations that have been interfering with the increase of profits for the very few. But there are regulations and there are regulations. Some are in the spirit of “mercantilism” that is intended to increase a nation’s wealth by regulating all of the nation’s commercial interests. Those are the regulations people like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke had in mind when they argued for a system of “free enterprise” that would increase human liberty and contribute to the common good. That was in the eighteenth century, the age of Enlightenment.

But there are regulations today that are designed to protect citizens from the dangers following upon the blind pursuit of profit that threaten the health and well-being of us all. Smith fought against “mercantilism” because the government at that time was intent on decreasing wages and expanding the pool of needy workers that would then be available to the wealthy who owned the factories. Smith argued vociferously for raising the wages of the working classes. The attacks of Karl Marx were also against the same propertied class in the name of the “workers of the world.” Today’s regulations that are designed to protect citizens from corporate abuse, not to mention the destruction of the planet that sustains us all, are of a different order and would most certainly not have been opposed by Adam Smith. One wonders about Edmund Burke who, while a student of Adam Smith, was also a more ferocious defender of the rights of the propertied classes —  though he had some rough words for the “sophists, economists, and calculators” who pervert the true principles of economy by promoting policies that were inimical to the welfare of the country.

In any event, those who might refer to Smith or to Burke in pursuing the elimination of regulations might want to reflect on the intention of the two thinkers., Both were concerned about the liberty of all citizens, though Smith was primarily concerned about the liberty of the ordinary workers who were busily being exploited in his day by the mercantile classes, the owners of the means of production, as Marx would have it a century later. Smith was a compassionate thinker, a pillar of the British Enlightenment and firmly at the center of the Scottish Moral Sense School of philosophy who was convinced that men would, left to themselves, do the right thing. His famous comment, often invoked in defense of free-enterprise capitalism should be taken in the context of his entire thesis and in his earlier work in moral philosophy. When he says that

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest”

we must pause and reflect that this is the man who regards human sympathy and benevolence as fundamental traits in the human soul. The pursuit of self-interest, in Smith’s view, would not conflict with benevolence or the well-being of others, because we are all, Smith thought, concerned not only about our own good but also the good of our fellow human beings. By pursuing self-interest we are at the same time pursuing the best interest of others. There is no conflict, in Smith’s view, because all humans want all other humans to be happy and well off. All, that is, but those who own the factories that employ humans at starvation levels. Smith fought hard to demand that the government, if it interfere at all, fund public education and work to promote policies that raise the wages of the working men and women rather than to reduce them as many would do in his name today. The mercantile system that Smith criticized sought to direct the economy in the interests of national wealth and power, not in the direction of the ordinary worker. Thus, when he advocates free enterprise it was because he was convinced that left to themselves workers would care for one another and help the economy at the same time. He was convinced, for example, that educating the workers and raising their wages would increase productivity, improve worker morale, and increase profits, while at the same time making it possible for the workers to live fuller, richer lives. This is the free-enterprise system he advocated.

Smith would not have fought against the sorts of regulations that protect citizens today against the abuses of the large corporations that would poison the air and water. Nor would he defend the supposed “right” of mega-corporations to be deregulated in the name of increased profits. Certainly not if those actions were undertaken at the cost of increasing poverty for increasing numbers of men and women and direct threats to their health and the preservation of the planet on which we all depend, which they most assuredly are. Smith would never condone, for example, the sort of attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency we have seen of late. So those who invoke his name in defense of their attacks on regulations might to do well to actually read Adam Smith’s book and pause to reflect on the long-term costs of their short-term thinking.  It’s not all about profits. It’s all about the common good. It was in Smith’s time and it still is in our’s.

Ignorance Is Bliss?

I sometimes I wish I could join the ranks of the ignorant, because I am told that ignorance is bliss — and I would believe it. I would also believe:

• that global warming is a fiction invented by liberal (and therefore “wrong-headed”) scientists and our planet is not under threat by greedy capitalists.

• that elected officials are smarter than I and are only concerned about the common good. And mine.

• that the armed forces are comprised of dedicated young men and women who have devoted their lives to protecting my freedom — and not the interests of Big Oil.

• that Big Oil is devoted to developing better and cheaper ways to make my life more comfortable, and not, as some insist, to increasing their already massive profits.

• that the continued use of torture and drones will eventually win the war on terror — and not simply label this country as morally bankrupt and increase by tenfold the numbers of would-be terrorists who hate me and my country (and everything we stand for).

• that Wall Street provides the paradigm of success by which we should all guide our lives.

• that corporate CEOs are devoted to improving their company’s products and the lot of their employees rather than cutting corners and pocketing more than 400 times what the folks who work for them make.

• that Christmas was about “Peace on Earth” and not materialism and profits for retailers.

• that the money the very wealthy spend backing selected politicians will produce the best and brightest leaders in Congress who will transcend party loyalties and work together for the common good.

• that our democracy is a government of, by, and for the people and not of, by, and for the few who control the vast majority of wealth in this country.

• that the more people who carry guns the safer the world would be.

• that the players on my favorite sports teams aren’t taking PEDs and that the Mafia never gets involved in fixing sporting events — at any level.

• that everything I hear and see on Fox News is the truth.

As I say, I wish I could believe these things because I suspect I would be more at peace and better able to sleep soundly at night, confident that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds (as Pangloss would have it). But then I would be delusional, and I don’t think I want to be that. So I will continue to read and think and attempt to make sense of the little I know while I try to be as realistic as possible about the things going on around me — bearing in mind the words of the very wise Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Greed, Thy Heart Is Black

A recent story about the production of oil in North Dakota caught my eye. It begins:

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Dr. Lyle Best traveled nearly 200 miles from the heart of North Dakota’s oil patch Tuesday to tell state regulators one thing: “Slow down.”

The North Dakota Industrial Commission is considering a proposal that would cut back on the state’s booming oil production as a means of controlling the amount of natural gas that’s being burned off at well sites and wasted as a byproduct of the more valuable substance, oil.

But oil companies are fighting the idea of slowing production, and want regulators to consider self-imposed steps to curb natural gas flaring, such as submitting plans for natural gas gathering before applying for a drilling permit.

North Dakota drillers currently burn off, or flare, a record 36 percent of the gas because development of pipelines and processing facilities to capture it hasn’t kept pace with oil drilling. The U.S. Energy Department says less than 1 percent of natural gas is flared from oil fields nationwide, and less than 3 percent worldwide.

Best, a Watford City physician, was among more than two dozen people who testified on the new proposal. Best said he lives within 200 yards of two oil wells that emit flares at least 20 feet high and produce a sound “similar to a jetliner passing nearby.”

The biggest issues with burning the gas, he said, is wasting it and the potentially harmful emissions that may be released from flaring.

Indeed, those flares can be seen from outer space: the central and western parts of the state of North Dakota appear to be on fire. But, hey! It’s all about huge profits. The serious risks from widespread fracking are totally ignored, as is the waste and danger to the planet from those natural gas burn-offs. And then there are the hundreds of oil cars that the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railroad haul daily from North Dakota through such environmentally sensitive places as Glacier Park to the West Coast where the oil is shipped to the Pacific rim: a routine practice that ignores the possibility of catastrophic accidents, a likelihood that increases daily considering that a derailment occurs with alarming regularity. This is a dangerous game these oil barons are playing, but they have their blinders on and can only see, smell, and hear the profits mounting up in their off-shore bank accounts.

As it happens, I know a couple of people who work on the oil fields in North Dakota and am aware of the huge profits this activity yields to the workers themselves and the small businesses who cater to them on or near the oil fields. It’s a virtual gold rush. The state of North Dakota is one of the very few in this country that operates in the black (pardon the pun) and I get that. It’s nice to see that some of those who actually need money are getting some of the benefits of this gluttony. But the notion that is most disturbing, suggested in this story, is that those in charge can’t get the oil out fast enough and that they simply don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Our economy encourages folks to get as much as they can while the getting is good. I also get that. But it is an ugly feature of this economy that makes its successful practitioners ugly and one that costs us all a great deal in the long run — the future that those who call the shots are determined to  ignore.

One must ask in the final analysis if it is just possible that humans simply cannot resist the temptations of power and prestige that are promised by great wealth. I do wonder if in promising men wealth and power in this world through tearing from the earth its hidden treasures the genie was released from the bottle. It is just possible that the force of those temptations is too great for men to resist with wills weakened by habitual self-indulgence. The question is,  just how do we go about putting the genie back into the bottle?

Black Friday

[I am reblogging this post from a couple of years ago because the problem persists. In fact, it seems to be getting worse with stores now opening on Thanksgiving Day and employees being told simply to shut up.]

The headline read “Woman pepper sprays other Black Friday shoppers.” In an effort to have a better chance to get at the cheap electronics Walmart was using as a lure to get shoppers jump-started this holiday season, a woman pepper sprayed about 20 customers who were in her way. Except for the talking heads on Fox News who think this is perfectly acceptable behavior, everyone is in a dither —  but for many of the wrong reasons. Out-of-control shoppers are a worry, but the whole marketing ploy that increasingly encroaches on Thanksgiving is the larger problem.

We do live in a commodified culture, as Robert Heilbroner told us many years ago, but our values are clearly out of kilter when money and the things that money can buy become the main focus of an entire nation. If we take a commodified culture preoccupied with possession of things, combine it with an immense advertising machine that works buyers into a frenzy prior to Thanksgiving, it is no wonder that things like this happen. We shouldn’t be surprised; clearly things are out of focus when money becomes the center of one’s life. Citizens who bother to go to the voting booth any more are there to turn around a weak economy. That has been the rule for some time now: vote out the bastards who are taking money out of my pocket. The real issues, like spread of nuclear weapons and the damage we are doing to the environment in our tizzy to raise our already obscenely high standard of living, are largely ignored.

Christmas should, of course, be a time for reflection and thought about others. In this country, and other “developed” countries around the world, it has become a time to get that 30% of the yearly profits that keep the engines of commerce running. It is understandable, since business has become the cornerstone of our culture. But is it necessary to point out that the ideals of business are antithetical to the ideals of the one whose birth we celebrate next month? The fact that a woman in California would pepper-spray her way to the cheap electronics in Walmart is simply a sign of the times and a clear indication that we need to rethink our priorities.

Truth To Tell

In an interesting half-page in the current ONEARTH magazine published by NRDC, there’s a lesson in telling it like it is. The author, John Walke, who is director of NRDC’s clean air project, corrects a number of mistaken statements in a letter written to the Washington Post by the president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Now we know by this time that “clean coal” is a misnomer: there is no such thing. There is just “cleaner coal” — which is to say, coal that is cleaner than it was a few years ago. This is thanks to the EPA which has forced the coal industry to a higher standard, though the coal industry would like us to think it was their idea.

The letter claims, for example, that the coal industry has cleaned up its act and would dearly love to take credit for pulling their hand out of the cookie jar, though we can see them hiding another cookie behind their backs!  Walke points out that the EPA has brought the cleanup about and while the coal industry claims that coal is “almost 90 percent cleaner than it was 40 years ago,” in fact it has been forced by the EPA to be 90 percent cleaner by 2015: it hasn’t reached that benchmark yet, and it is moving in that direction only because of federal legislation, not the desire to be good citizens. The coal industry also claims credit for “more than a dozen clean coal technologies” when, in fact, they have lobbied for 40 years against clean air safeguards and they are still fighting — along with Big Oil, of course. In the final paragraph of the letter, the coal industry correctly points out that energy demand will increase in coming years (duhhh) “and that demand cannot be met without coal.” Walke points out that in the U.S. “renewable energy, natural gas, and simple economics have steadily reduced demand for electricity generated by coal. California is on track to use no coal-based electricity by 2025. Clean energy technologies can produce both good jobs here and energy for export.”

The letter by the coal industry commits what logicians call the “neglected aspect” fallacy. They simply ignore alternatives to coal, especially clean energy alternatives like solar and wind, in order to scare people into thinking that they are the only alternative to an otherwise bleak future without adequate energy for teeming populations. And, of course, they ignore the alternative of population control which would go a long way toward solving not only this country’s energy problems, but the planet’s as well. But that’s another story for another day — though it is not much talked about, sad to say.

In a word, we know that corporations are not beneath making public statements that not only stretch the truth and wallow in half-truths, but actually state bald-faced lies — all in order to hoodwink the public and sell their products. We must always consider the source and never forget that the name of their game is “profits,” and when they start to spout data to prove their innocence they are not above saying what they think we want to hear rather than what we ought to hear — since the latter might interfere with the bottom line. A healthy skepticism is always in order.

Whole Foods?

A recent story in Yahoo News tells us about one of the more interesting people making millions of dollars feeding people: John Mackay, founder and CEO of Whole Foods which is a “Green Company” that prides itself on paying its employees well and selling only foods that are safe to eat. Presumably. But Mr. Mackay has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth occasionally, as he himself admits. He appears to be a bundle of contradictions.

His commitment to the environment is coupled with a commitment to free-enterprise capitalism which he insists “can eliminate poverty on the planet.” He doesn’t say how this  can be accomplished, but magicians never reveal their tricks. Nor does he explain how he can reconcile his commitment to free-enterprise capitalism (which is a fiction) with the corporate attack on the planet. He is convinced that business has earned a bad reputation in this country due to its narrow focus on profits at the expense of a social conscience (duhhh); he thinks there needs to be a balance. He himself takes a salary of $1.00 a year and leads what he calls a “simple life.” But he is convinced that global warming is “not that big a deal,” and this is where we need to note the position of his foot vis-à-vis his mouth. He knows not whereof he speaks.

He seems to think that global warming is simply a matter of a few degrees of temperature which shouldn’t be too big a challenge for adaptable humans. But as noted in a previous blog a recent report from the National Climate Assessment that involved 300 scientists, including scientists from NASA, tells a disconcerting story of a warming planet that is already having serious repercussions. Climate change is a big deal and it is in large measure the result of human activity.

The report tells us that  “Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and in some regions floods and droughts.” The Northeast has experienced an increase of 74% in heavy rainfall since 1958. The country is currently experiencing severe drought in 65% of the farming areas, which should prove a problem for sellers of foods, such as Mr. Mackay — not to mention those of us who will have to pay more for basic foods or watch items disappear from the shelves altogether. There have recently been record numbers of hurricanes and tornadoes and the Frankenstorm Sandy is regarded as one of a number of freak storms that are predicted to become more common.

The effects of climate change will not only be felt in food production and the increasing costs of repairing damage from freak storms, but it is already resulting in rising sea levels that have displaced entire island communities, melting ice caps, thawing permafrost, and reduced animal habitat. It will also take a toll on human life and health as the Assessment predicts “increased risk of asthma and other public health emergencies, widespread power blackouts, mass transit shutdowns, and [again] shortages of food.”

Mr. Mackay is wrong. Climate change is a big deal. And he is making a huge mistake to pretend it is not and ignoring plain facts while he insists that free-enterprise capitalism can “eliminate poverty” when corporate profits are predicated on the exploitation of workers, “downsizing,” and “outsourcing,” and while the typical corporate CEO makes 475 times as much as his employee. Mr Mackay doesn’t only have his foot in his mouth; he has his head up his butt.

Getting It Right

In the aftermath of Black Friday and what is rapidly becoming Black Thursday — previously known as “Thanksgiving” — it is refreshing to read stories like the following:

PLYMOUTH, Mass. — Here in the birthplace of Thanksgiving, where the Pilgrims first gave thanks in 1621 for their harvest and their survival, some residents are giving thanks this year for something else: the Colonial-era blue laws that prevent retailers from opening their doors on the fourth Thursday of November.

In fact, throughout New England there are remnants of “blue laws” and a growing movement toward keeping Thanksgiving safe from commerce. And polls show that a large percentage of this country’s population finds the commercialization of the holidays unpalatable. But record numbers of folks still show up at the stores in the early hours of Black Friday and, increasingly, late on Thursday as well. One does suspect that the anti-shopping movement will fizzle out as commerce has money at its disposal and money as we all know can be very persuasive. And that’s the problem, isn’t it?

We have bought in to the notion that money talks and what it has to say is somehow important when, in fact, it has little to say and should be told to shut up. But that ship has sailed. We not only listen when money talks, we bow down and worship it and buy into its metaphors (‘sorry about that!) and applaud its wealthy heroes and blindly accept its definition of success.

We do not define success in terms of character and improving the lot of others as we most assuredly should; we do not applaud the feats of the true heroes, the volunteers who serve dinners at soup kitchens, the underpaid police and firemen who protect our lives daily, the teachers who have to deal with our spoiled children on subsistence wages, and the men and women who step forward during a crisis such as hurricane Sandy.  Instead we applaud the wealthy athletes and Hollywood actors and actresses in their $45 million homes whose shallow lives we follow avidly and seek to emulate. Those are our cultural heroes, not the ordinary folks who are selfless and go thankless and unappreciated every day of their lives.

But Plymouth, Massachusetts may have the right idea. Thanksgiving is the one holiday every year when commerce should be told to take a hike, when we should stop and think about what really matters: the many blessings we all share. Shopping should not be on the agenda. It’s bad enough we sit after a sumptuous meal glued to the television set watching one or more of the three NFL games provided for us by sponsors whose only goal is to make bigger profits. But, sad to say, the reason this day will eventually become a Black Thursday is precisely because there is a ton of money to be made and we will be told repeatedly to shop until we at long last get the message and leave the couch and head to the nearest box store. After all, we do want to get the best deal — and it’s first-come-first-served.

In the meantime, let’s give thanks to the folks in Plymouth who got it right. They are members of a vanishing breed and will soon go the way of the dinosaurs.

Oh, Poor Baby!

Pity the poor corporate CEO. After all he needs to make his profits and this is the time of the year when he makes the most. Why shouldn’t he insist that his employees work on Thanksgiving? He is planning to take the kids out of private school early this year and fly them to Switzerland for a skiing vacation.  After all, they  went to Mexico last year and there’s no need to repeat the same old thing. And he wants to fly his family from Geneva down to Rome for Christmas day and have a nice meal. Those private jets don’t fly themselves and pilots don’t come cheap! Poor guy: all he wants to do is make sure this year his family has a REAL vacation! Those damned employees have signed another petition to put pressure on him to let them have Thanksgiving day off. What do they think this is, anyway?

Target is one of the larger chains to ignore the pleas and petitions of its employees, as this story in the Orlando Business Journal tells us:

A Target employee launched an online petition drive asking the company to push back opening hours and let workers spend Thanksgiving with their families, after the retailer announced it would open at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving for Black Friday shopping.

The petition has garnered more than 211,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon, the South Florida Business Journal reports.

It happened last year as well. The story has been repeated again this year as the Consumerist also tells us:

For the second year in a row, a Target employee has managed to secure hundreds of thousands of names on a petition asking Target to rethink its pans to start its Black Friday sale on Thanksgiving night. And for the second year in a row, Target is politely declining the suggestion and moving ahead as planned.

Target thus will demand that their employees work on turkey day again. This is the American way. The period from Thanksgiving until Christmas is the portion of the year when the businesses make the majority of their annual profits so the idea is to extend that period as much as possible in order to increase profits. If this means keeping the stores open on Thanksgiving Day, so be it!  As we have seen, it doesn’t stop here: the pre-Christmas sales now start before Halloween. It’s never too early to make a buck! This is not brain surgery. It’s not ethical, either. But we have long since given up on letting ethics stand in the way of Big Business.

There are companies, and especially small businesses, that care about their employees and attempt to work out some sort of compromise between the employees’ reasonable desire to spend time with their families during the holidays and the need to make sure the bottom line is black instead of red at year’s end. But the large corporations must answer to their stockholders and they tend to be heartless and unfeeling in the manner of Scrooge at this time of the year. But unlike Dickens’ wonderful tale, there’s no one person the ghosts can visit in order to activate a dormant conscience and make them realize what this season is supposed to be about. The Supreme Court has determined that corporations are persons. That’s absurd on its face, but even if it were true, it is a certainty that they don’t have a conscience.

The Christmas Spirit

It does seem a bit early to begin thinking about Christmas, though the stores and the TV commercials have been all in our faces about gift giving since last Fall. I can remember when the stores would at least wait until after Thanksgiving to set up their Christmas displays. But that was then. Now some of the department stores in our area are already having “pre-Christmas” sales to dump some of the merchandise they don’t want to get stuck with at year’s end while others indicate they will be open on Thanksgiving day to get a jump on the competition. I do realize that this is the time of the year when the businesses that comprise the heart and soul of this great nation make their maximum profits, so if I complain I am beating a dead horse. But I can agree with the brilliant satirist Tom Lehrer when he tells us that the proper spirit of Christmas as practiced in this country is the commercial spirit. In fact, he wrote a song about this season that begins as follows:

Christmas time is here, by golly

Disapproval would be folly.

Deck the halls with hunks of holly

Fill the cup and don’t say when.

Kill the turkey, ducks and chickens

Mix the punch, drag out the dickens.

Even though the prospect sickens

Brother, here we go again!

I suspect that gallons of ink have been wasted reminding us what Christmas is supposed to be about and the words have, for the most part, fallen on deaf ears. So I won’t go there. Instead, I would like to consider a broader issue: the inherent contradiction between the central message of the New Testament and capitalism which has captured our hearts and souls. The latter involves the domination of many by the few in the name of profits, whereas the former stresses the subordination of self for the sake of all in the name of love. The contradiction has fascinated me since I wrote a senior thesis in college on R.H. Tawney’s remarkable book Religion and The Rise of Capitalism. As Tawney was careful to point out, and as Max Weber also argued, Christianity has survived by making innumerable compromises to capitalism: the contradiction has been resolved by Christianity giving up the field almost entirely. What remains in our commodified culture are a few devout followers, empty churches, and remnants of the Christian ethic in the form of the Golden Rule that surfaces most often in moments of crisis — all mere suggestions of the doctrine preached by the founder of Christianity who insisted that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven.

But we don’t like this message and as is so often the case with things we don’t like, we ignore them — like global warming for example. But the fact remains that the religion that so many people claim to follow demands of them sacrifices they are simply unwilling to make, so they have replaced it with a more entertaining, commercial imitation. Christmas as we celebrate it in this country is simply the most graphic symptom of a cultural malady that suggest similarities with ancient Rome: it attests to the undeniable fact that it is not love of our fellow humans that motivates us; it is, as Lehrer tells us, our love of money. Indeed, Tom Lehrer wasn’t the first to point this out. By no means. He was beaten to the punch by the remarkable Alexis De Tocqueville who visited this country in 1831 and noted that  “..[Americans] have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote a novel about a man who truly wanted to follow Christ while living in a secular world in which the message Christ preached had become mere words. The novel was titled The Idiot, and the title says it all: the protagonist simply didn’t fit in and was thought a fool. Anyone who really wanted to follow the teachings of the New Testament would be so regarded in a world where commerce is at the center of our lives and politicians ignore all other issues when running for public office except “jobs and the economy.” Has your life gotten “better” in the last four years?

Business is not an inherently bad thing, but the profit motive that drives so many people in business (with rare exceptions) most assuredly is in conflict with a doctrine that focuses upon charity and love of our fellow humans. It is pointless to claim we are loving those we exploit and make dependent upon us or when we ignore those in need in our attempt to accumulate as much wealth as possible. In the end we must admit that Christianity has been forced to capitulate to capitalism. Any doubts we might have disappear at this time of the year, as Tom Lehrer reminds us:

God rest ye Merry Merchants

May ye make the Yuletide pay!