Wednesday, March 25, 2009

All God's Children Need Each Other....

Yesterday, the President mentioned morality and ethics at his press conference:

No. I think there's, there's always an ethical and a moral element that has to be, be a part of this.
Now, he mentioned that in the context of a question about his moral or ethical concerns with allowing stem-cell research, so it wasn't completely off the wall, and it wasn't an answer pandering to a constituency. But it's a good general statement, one he seems to govern by anyway; and ethics and morality have a way of not staying in one place or limiting themselves to issues that only seem to directly involve ethical questions; into areas like the economy, for instance.

Today, we are being told, there is a "push back" coming from Wall Street. So far it is confined to blogistan, but the discussion started with a particularly self-centered and self-pitying op-ed at the New York Times, which ended:

That is why I have decided to donate 100 percent of the effective after-tax proceeds of my retention payment directly to organizations that are helping people who are suffering from the global downturn. This is not a tax-deduction gimmick; I simply believe that I at least deserve to dictate how my earnings are spent, and do not want to see them disappear back into the obscurity of A.I.G.’s or the federal government’s budget. Our earnings have caused such a distraction for so many from the more pressing issues our country faces, and I would like to see my share of it benefit those truly in need.

On March 16 I received a payment from A.I.G. amounting to $742,006.40, after taxes. In light of the uncertainty over the ultimate taxation and legal status of this payment, the actual amount I donate may be less — in fact, it may end up being far less if the recent House bill raising the tax on the retention payments to 90 percent stands. Once all the money is donated, you will immediately receive a list of all recipients.

This choice is right for me. I wish others at A.I.G.-F.P. luck finding peace with their difficult decision, and only hope their judgment is not clouded by fear.
I suppose rather than pay taxes on my income, I'll give it all away so it isn't spent on armaments and war and other things I'm opposed to. I'm sure the IRS will let me do that, as it will allow Mr. DeSantis to decide how to bestow his charity on the world. But that isn't really the point, is it?

The point is: whose money is it, and whose financial system? Mr. DeSantis contributed to one of the companies most singly responsible for an international collapse in financial markets, one that has nearly ruined the economies of whole countries, put millions out of work, cost over $1 trillion on lost wealth in America alone, and for which, he is eager to point out, he is not at all responsible. Since he isn't directly responsible, he shouldn't be required directly to pay. Money is not fungible, in Mr. DeSantis' world, any more than responsibility is, so he wants to be left alone to enjoy the $742,000+ bonus he richly deserves. After all, he worked more than 40 hours a week for it, and he's sure he did a good job; so he deserves it.

My first thought was of John the Baptist, in Luke, when he warns the people who have come to see him:
"You spawn of Satan! Who warned you to flee from the impending doom? Well, then, start producing fruits suitable for a change of heart, and don't even start saying to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' Let me tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham right out of these rocks. Even now the axe is aimed at the root of the tree. So every tree not producing choice fruit gets cut down and thrown into the fire." Luke 3: 7b-9, SV
Risible stuff, to be sure. But the crowds went out to listen to John; he didn't buttonhole them on the streets. So I don't see Mr. DeSantis and his ilk finding themselves in those words, even though it would be easy enough to substitute "Mammon" for "Abraham," or for Mr. DeSantis and his brethren to see themselves as producing choice fruit and declare: "We're Masters of the Universe! We don't apologize to anybody!" But if it did prick their conscience, at least the one Mr. DeSantis thinks he has, and they asked what they should do, John's answer is practical, if not what they want to hear:

"Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none; whoever has food should do the same." Toll collectors also came to be baptized, and they would ask him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He told them, "Charge nothing above the official rates." Soldiers also asked him, "And what about us?" And he said to them: "No more shakedowns! No more frame-ups either! And be satisfied with your pay."Luke 3:11-14, SV
Mr. DeSantis would probably like that part about tax collectors; and if he could see himself as the modern equivalent of a Roman soldier (in many ways, he is), he wouldn't like the implications of the Baptist's command, though he might say that's all he's trying to do by keeping his bonus and, apparently, "going Galt." But he isn't, of course; indeed, self-awareness is the whole problem. For that lesson, we'd need something less specifically religious, and less aimed at those who come to the prophet in the wilderness for guidance, and more aimed at those, like Mr. DeSantis and his disgruntled colleagues, who don't.

Fortunately, we have that:

"The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds--and also big enough to shut out the voices of the poor....There is your sister or brother, naked, crying! And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering."

And more in keeping with the admonition of John:

"What keeps you from giving now? Isn't the poor person there? Aren't your own warehouses full? Isn't the reward promised? The command is clear: the hungry person is dying now, the naked person is freezing now, the person in debt is beaten now-and you want to wait until tomorrow? "I'm not doing any harm," you say. "I just want to keep what I own, that's all." You own! You are like someone who sits down in a theater and keeps everyone else away, saying that what is there for everyone's use is your own. . . . If everyone took only what they needed and gave the rest to those in need, there would be no such thing as rich and poor. After all, didn't you come into life naked, and won't you return naked to the earth?

"The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the person who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help."

Mr. DeSantis might well argue that he needs to take more, that he works 14 hours a day away from his family; but then we could introduce him to the migrant workers and those in our country who spend years away from their family, working for minimum wage or less, for as many hours a day as they can get paid for. And we can tell him over and over again: "You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help."

And it doesn't even have to be a religious message.

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