The Financial Seminary
"Our faith is fraying in the faceless god of money: High finance is now so very high--so in-the-cloud--so algorithmic, so removed from those on the ground who suffer the fallout from its misdeeds---that it is seen as faceless, voiceless, non-human. Has it taken on the attributes of a god--unpredictable, all-powerful, uncontrollable?...Capitalism, like any other religion, relies on faith and trust; as it is a material religion, it must also continue to deliver to an ever-expanding world population at least some of the benefits it promises. Which will be a hard task on an already depleted planet."
The Financial Times
April 14, 2012
For nearly twenty-five years, I've suggested the radical new form of capitalism practiced by the disciples of atheistic philosopher Ayn Rand on Wall Street and in corporate America, and increasingly by cultural Christians as well, bears little resemblance to historic Christianity. Of course, Rand taught the moral purpose of our lives is to make money, hence her wearing a pin of the dollar sign as Christians wear crosses. She also had a six-foot symbol of the dollar at the head of her casket, just as we have crosses.
I've also disagreed with Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and his Chicago School of Economics that economics should dictate how we live virtually every dimension of our lives. Traditional morality has long insisted economics is fine in certain spheres of life but we should never sell our bodies in prostitution, sell our children into slavery, sell our faith for money, and so on. The irony is that focusing on a quick buck, rather than integrity, prudence, patience and other moral aspects of life, we have destroyed trust to the point people are afraid to spend, invest or give money, as indicated above by the historic low in the velocity of our money supply. This was precisely why Jesus taught the abundant life depended on seeking first the kingdom of God and having faith the financial and material would follow.
I've often been criticized for those views, particularly in conservative Christianity, where highly visible leaders of conservative Christian ministries have written widely distributed articles like Jesus being a "free market capitalist" rather than an occupier. But if Jesus ever wanted markets to be free of either the law or morality that Moses prescribed for the marketplace, the teaching has been deleted from my Bible, as it apparently was from the Bibles of Calvin, Wesley and Luther.
All I've really suggested is that we need to reintegrate our political-economy and personal finances with a kinder version of the Calvinist morality that helped to build our nation. For simplicity, I have called that reintegrated approach "stewardism." Perhaps that "ism" sounds suspiciously close to socialism or statism. Most conservative Christians don't understand it but while we may be socially and politically conservative, we are also the most economically liberal Christians in history. Prosperity theology is only the extreme example. Most of us have no idea why C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that the biblical prophets would be amazed that we now have no problems with earning interest, which Christianity forbade on threat of excommunication until the Protestant Reformation; expect to be repaid when we lend, despite what Jesus said on the Mount; and think it's New Age for some mutual funds to avoid earning profits from companies that harm people, even though something quite similar was central to the teachings of Moses.
The many scandals of Wall Street and then the manipulation of the London Interbank Offer Rate (LIBOR), which The Economist estimated affected $800 trillion of capital around our world, have recently prompted a few more Christians to wonder about where our world, and economy in particular, is headed. But I never expected Joe Paterno and Penn State football to put an huge exclamation point after my concerns about an economy that is now unbridled from the traditional morality of Judeo-Christianity. Surely, if there's an area of life that should be untainted by our culture's pervasive lust for money, which is a good tool but terrible god, it should be amateur sports. Yet the ancients would never understand the money involved in the London Olympics either. So it might be a good time to meditate on these words from a full-page article in the July 24, 2012 issue of The Wall Street Journal, of all places, which are worth quoting at length:
"Cash a Large Check, Repent, Refocus, Cash a Larger Check: Change the culture. That's what the NCAA says it wants. It sound good. It sounds right. But it also sounds impossible without acknowledging and addressing the largest factor in the distorted business of big-time college sports: money.
Let's be clear here: This was Penn State's disaster and Penn State deserves everything it gets. What happened was a breathtaking example of institutional failure, or, as the school's own investigation put it: 'the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders...for the safety and welfare of Jerry Sandusky's child victims.' This is a university's unconscionable shame, and it should never be forgotten.
As the NCAA tries to drill deeper, past the wins it has rendered non-existent and the scholarships it has deducted, it cannot ignore the dollars. That isn't to say that a college program can't make a profit and play by the rules--some do--or that college teams were pristine until huge revenues began pouring into athletics. The difference is that the game has changed.
Television-rights fees have exploded into the billions--the NCAA currently has an $11 billion TV contract for its March Madness basketball tournament and reports have suggested the upcoming major-college football playoff could earn as much as $5 billion. Sponsorships, ticket sales and licensing deals bring more. A big-time football program can generate tens of millions per season, and tough profits are hardly guaranteed--a stunning proportion of athletic departments run at a deficit--this pursuit can be used to justify a program's excessive power on campus. Penn State itself chronically touted football's financial contribution to the university and the community.
Penn State believed it was immune. And every school thinks it will intercede before compromises are made, standards are lowered, and corners are cut. But the revenues are so great that a low fog can roll in, clouding judgment. Hypocrisies are abundant. It continues because we are brilliant at looking the other way. Culture sounds like an abstraction, but it's really not. Money is driving the culture. Penn State is down, for a long time, perhaps forever. Let's see what else will ever change."
Reality, as I see it anyway, is that since the late sixties, elite Americans, and therefore the American institutions they run, be they our investment firms, governments, colleges or churches, have increasingly thought exclusively about making money to the exclusion of traditional morality, as Ayn Rand hoped we would. Yet that traditional morality taught us that a man is as he thinketh, so is he. That's also true for nations. So most Americans are as miserable about our GDP as they've been in history, even though the GDP is back above its level preceding the Great Recession. If we remembered more of that morality, that wouldn't surprise us as it also says those who love money will never get enough.
John Calvin taught us that those who do not worship God will worship the state if they're communists, or they'll worship money if capitalists, and so on. Perhaps it's time to again worship the true God while we use money and the state. As has been wisely said, sin is simply using that which should be loved and loving that which should be used.
Gary Moore is a Sarasota-based investment counselor who has authored many publications and articles on the morality of political-economy and personal finance. He is a registered representative of, and offers securities through, National Planning Corp (NPC), member FINRA/SIPC, but opinions expressed here are his alone. The Financial Seminary and NPC are separate and unrelated. His comments are included in the More Good $ense newsletter in an effort to expand stewardship leaders’ understanding of broader economic issues.