Money & Our Purposes with People
Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we conclude our serialization of the great lecture Eli Siegel gave on August 23, 1974, Always with PDC. Those initials stand for the three divisions of any economy: production, distribution, consumption. And, he is showing, what is always with these—and not as a mere accompaniment but as fundamental—is ethics: the justice or injustice with which one sees what is other than oneself.
This final installment of Always with PDC consists of passages from the discussion period following the lecture. It contains further comments and explanations by Mr. Siegel, and his answers to questions asked by students present.
He is speaking 33 years ago, and much has changed in these decades. But what he saw in the 1970s, and was the economist to explain, has continued. It is with us now more intensely than ever. He explained that an economy based on bad ethics—on the contempt of seeing men, women, and children in terms of how much profit one can get from them—such an economy has reached that point in history when it can never thrive again. He wrote:
There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.
In recent issues I pointed to some of today's abundant evidence for that statement. For example: the widening income gap between rich and poor in America; the diminishing of the middle class as people become poorer in this nation; the fact that Americans are working longer hours for less pay—and the worry, pain, and resentment accompanying all this, in the homes and workplaces of our land.
Ethics & Mortgages
Right now, a large economic agony—which means a human agony—is the matter of sub-prime mortgages. Families across America have lost their homes because they couldn't make the payments on their mortgages. Much is being written about this mortgage crisis, and its effect on banks and markets. But what I think important to point out here is that it is a matter of ethics all the way.
The biggest question for the people and nations of the world, Mr. Siegel said, is this ethical question: “What does a person deserve by being a person?” There is now more of a feeling in people than there ever was that there are things they deserve, to which they have a right. That increased feeling is part of what Mr. Siegel described as “the force of ethics.” And one of the things persons across America feel they deserve is a home.
Let us take a man in Nebraska who works in the offices of a large agricultural company. Ron and his wife, Nina, have two children, and Nina works as a waitress at a local café. They've had a hard time financially, what with the cost of food, and clothes for the children, and the rent they'd been paying for their quite cramped living quarters. Their credit rating is low. But they needed more room and they wanted a house of their own. They felt the children deserved a nice place to live.
Ron spoke with a mortgage broker and was told he and Nina could finance such a home by taking out a sub-prime mortgage: a high interest rate loan, offered to people like them, who don't have much money. A bank eagerly provided the mortgage, requiring no money down. The bank was glad the broker encouraged Ron to feel he and Nina could make the payments with ease—even though they couldn't.
It is five years later. Ron, Nina, and the children are now included in the statistics of recent foreclosures. The family of four will stay with Nina's parents in Omaha until they figure out what to do. They'll sleep in the basement. The children cried when they had to leave their house after the bank took it; they had liked it very much.
One can say that Ron and Nina should have been more careful in committing themselves to such a mortgage. Undoubtedly they should have. But the large ethical questions are: 1) Do people deserve to have a good home? 2) Do they feel this more, and with a certain determination that can make them (wrongly, of course) a little careless? 3) Have brokers, banks, and other lenders tried to fool prospective borrowers? Have they seen people's need for a home as a chance to enrich themselves? Have they liked the fact that people were desperate to borrow, because this was a chance to make them pay high fees and interest rates? And is this way of seeing and dealing with people, whether technically legal or not, sheer ill will? 4) Has the ill will of banks toward American families not only hurt the families—has it wound up hurting the banks and further weakening the profit system itself? And is there something ethical in that retribution? Mr. Siegel explained: economics based on contempt can no longer work efficiently, and its failure is a victory for good will as a world force.
There Is a Conflict
In a lecture of 1971 he said, “There is a conflict in America : to be fair to its citizens, or to go on with the profit system.” This conflict corresponds to the fight Aesthetic Realism shows is central in every person: to be fair to the outside world, or to have contempt—go after an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” The profit motive and economics driven by it are phases of that cheap, hurtful thing in the human self, the desire for contempt.
In the last issue I quoted from a poem of Emerson. Now I'll use another American poem to comment on the ethics of profit economics and the way of mind behind it. Carl Sandburg is not literarily fashionable today; nevertheless, he is one of the authentic poets of America. In his Chicago Poems of 1916 there appeared these seven lines titled “They Will Say”:
Of my city the worst that men will ever say is this:
You took little children away from the sun and the dew,
And the glimmers that played in the grass under the great sky,
And the reckless rain; you put them between walls
To work, broken and smothered, for bread and wages,
To eat dust in their throats and die empty-hearted
For a little handful of pay on a few Saturday nights.
Child labor is illegal in America now (though some of it still goes on). The only reason that it occurred at all, and that employers wanted it and justified it and would have liked it to continue, is: their purpose was to make profit, and having the little ones work in their factories was quite profitable. Those who employed children, like those who owned slaves, were simply taking the profit system seriously: looking on a person in terms of, How much money can I make from you?
We can see another human being essentially in only two ways: 1) as a means of aggrandizing ourselves; or 2) as someone to be fair to, who is as real as we are, and whom we want to understand. These are the two possibilities in every aspect of our life—including love, the family, economics. And they cannot go together. If we're trying to be fair to a person, we won't be able to use him or her as some instrument for our personal glory—or our personal wealth.
The contemptuous use of people that Sandburg describes is opposed by the way he, as artist, sees and writes. There is an indignation in his lines at one with a tenderness of sound, so that we feel the reality and delicacy of these exploited children. In the music of the last line there is the emptiness that the profit system has made of their lives—but also a sound of dignity and wonder that honors them.
Americans want an economy that has in it the good will of art.