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The financial crisis has been a topic at all of our recent staff meetings, and we’ve been looking for different ways to address it. One idea was to begin conversations with thinkers in a variety of fields about the moral implications of what has happened and why. For the first of those conversations, we called up the economist Rebecca Blank, co-author of the book Is The Market Moral? She brings together a faith in the power of markets and her life-long Christian faith, providing a unique ethical perspective on the free market at a time when even Alan Greenspan has been expressing his doubts about it.

Give a listen and let us know what you think. And while you’re at it, share your story of how this crisis is affecting you, what you think the implications are, and where you’re looking for wisdom and strength in this shifting economic landscape.

(photo courtesy of PBS)

Editor’s update: Changed the title to include in our Repossessing Virtue series.


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6 Comments

Until it is commonly understood that Capitalism is amoral--neither moral or immoral--we run up against the notion that the free market is sacrosanct and regulation is bad! Capitalism & markets are largely a means of organizing resources. Without society setting limits, markets and capitalism will rewards monopolies as well as unfair trade & labor practices without regard to the harm done. There is some notion that in the long term, greedy & dishonest behavior will be punished by the market, but I don't think it is very efficient in doing so.
Society must take responsibility for establishing rules & incentives that reflect the best values of that society. If a society abdicates its role in developing the rules to government, it runs the risk of special interests vying to direct whatever the government regulation is. Because money is power, we more often have industry abusing the public by pressing the government to pass rules for its advantage. However, there are cases when advocates for labor or environment or other issues lobby for rules that give them advantages in a way that doesn't serve the public. Society needs to be reminded that it has a vital role. Ms Blank touches on some of this but her points seems a bit murky.

The belief that greed will be transformed into good by the Invisible Hand of the Market is, well, idolatry. Greed is still one of the seven deadly sins. And today we can more clearly see this. Yet the belief in grief seems harder to let go of than belief in God.

It's interesting that when people talk about free markets, they so often quote that line from the movie Wall Street: "Greed is good." I recently read an essay by Stanley Weiser, who wrote the screenplay for Wall Street, explaining that he never understood why "Greed is good," became a such rallying cry for capitalists. After all, the character who makes that pronouncement ends up in jail by the end of the movie. And Adam Smith wasn't in favor of greed either. His theory was that economies tend to benefit as a whole when individuals are given the freedom to pursue their separate self interests. But as we pointed out in our program, The Buddha in the World, Adam Smith also wrote about the dangers of materialism:

"Power and riches....are enormous machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniences to the body. They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labor of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which, while they stand, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much and sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow, to diseases, to danger and to death."

I believe the financial market is functioning as it is designed. Where we see a flaw there is really mathematical poetry going on in the background. To say poetry, I mean the wail of a macabre discourse for the seemingly powerful to retain such a perspective over those deemed powerless.

Business is an entity of people bent on making money, etc. I do not see where an ethic or morality of business can be defined based on this pluralistic nature of describing the legal way with which one can satisfy their greed or circumvent all legalities to immerse themselves in the perception that: I need more.

The moral and ethics seems to stem from the outsiders of those that do not benefit, directly, in this "Free Market" or "Globalized" economy. It is always easier after something has been unearthed to say this or say that about it and the bottom line is that we can discuss morals and ethics in business, but have they yet - even at a governmental level - changed their practices? If they did, would we know it?

I can speak to the fact that I am at a loss, but I wonder if it is part of the free market plan, if you will. I beat myself up for this and that: my children will be paying for my generation's mistakes, I will not retire, and so on. What I am believing is that the market is setup in conjunction with transparent connections to other areas, such as the media, that this is the plan.

The rant from a labeled, categorized, and statistically tracked consumer: one who finds free market to be anything resembling free or a market, but a costly sweatshop from the rich to the poor.

I do not need to see the face of other people to know what kind of person she would be, how he may behave, and how they live their lives. It is because we are all the same human being on earth in spite of how diverse it can be or how many ethnics existing. Understanding major differences embrace our human condition. The creation of all major religions in the world and other many expressions of faith and disbelief is what makes our human dynamics ethical. Hence, any political, economic, and social movement will be always reflected under the shadow of ethics. Ethics is the new model of the world. Ethics is the soul of our human relationships. Ethics is the salt of any human intervention. Everyone has already made a faith commitment to believe what he thinks is the spiritual life or the thought that she is supposed to direct her life. No matter how we conduct our lives, the fact of survival will breathe ethics- for the good or the bad - into our behavior. A global economic turndown is like if the whole humanity is losing its job. Several causes (1) abuse of power (2) retaliation (3) selfishness to work with other people (4) indolence (5) discrimination (6) lack of commitment (7) cupidity (8) hypocrisy (9) grandeur delirium (10) lack of care for the consequences. The solution to continue getting our food is to make the transition to the next level smoothly: the ethical age. Who is in charge to lead this enterprise? Yourself! It is not the common sense but the common people that brings the necessary change.

Rebecca Blank is right, we’re not all good people, and people end up doing harm, even when they don’t intend to. The market itself isn’t moral or amoral, but people are, and people control the market. We do have responsibilities to each other and the world in terms of financial gain and overall the health of people and the planet. More is not always the best way to think. On black Friday, people stampeded a man to death at Wal-Mart in order to buy televisions. The customers were angry when the store was closed, because they wanted a TV. They did not care that this was a person, and he had people who now don’t have him anymore. Globalization isn’t necessarily bad, but we need to stop and think about how this process divorces us from intimacy with our communities. We now have to work to remind ourselves that there are people around us and our responsibilities to each other if we’re going to survive.