Spiritual investment in the age of financial disaster
Greetings, Teeming Brainers. I’m back from attending the 29th annual Armadillocon in Austin, Texas, where I spoke on several panels (and served as moderator for one of them, which was a new experience) and enjoyed hobnobbing with various writers, editors, and fans of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative literature. It was a nice time overall.
I’m just hopping online right now — an increasingly rare occurrence over the past several weeks — to unload a few choice headlines and news stories that have entered my field of awareness recently. If you’re not paying attention, then you may have missed the fact that everybody, including, finally, the U.S. Federal Reserve, is now admitting that we’re in the midst of a major and mounting financial crisis. Stock markets and banking systems around the world have been wetting all over themselves with worry in recent weeks. Last week the Fed poured billions — that’s right, billions — of dollars into the U.S. banking system to slow down the hemorrhage from the subprime mortgage blowout, whose effects have now spread to the commercial market (in contradiction to earlier statements by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and others who had claimed the subprime threat was contained and would not hurt the wider economy in general). Other central banking systems around the globe, including the European Central Bank and the central banks of Japan and Australia, performed similar injections of emergency liquidity. Companies directly associated with the mortgage business, like Countrywide Financial, have announced profit problems or pullbacks, as have others that are only indirectly associated with it, such as The Home Depot, which announced an actual drop in its net income, and Wal-Mart, which reduced its profits forecast based on slowing consumer spending. Meanwhile, in the (only) seemingly distant realm of actual life on the ground, many prices continue to rise, including energy and food costs, with the price of milk recently rising to an all-time high.
In the midst of it all, there’s some amazingly frank and brutal rhetoric about the severity of the situation flying around in the air. And methinks it’s not just rhetoric.
Some of the comments focus on the specifics of the situation at hand in the financial markets. From an August 15th article at Bloomberg: “‘U.S. subprime losses have detonated a global financial markets disaster,” said Vickie Hsieh, who helps oversees $1.4 billion at President Investment Trust Corp. in Taipei.” From an August 15th column by David Pauly highlighting the fact that supposedly “safe” mortgages have turned out to be the ones most at risk: “The reality is an entire market in default. And the mess threatens to do for the credit markets what the collapse of dot-com shares did for the stock market in the three years beginning in 2000.” And then of course there’s Jim Cramer, the “Mad Money” guy himself, going into his absolutely astonishing rant on CNBC on Friday, August 3rd, wherein he prophesied financial armageddon and screamed that Bernanke and his compatriots at the Fed have “NO idea what it’s like out there! None! They know nothing! The Fed is asleep!”
Others look at the wider view and see reason to brace for major upheavals. Probably the most sweeping of these dire forecasts is the one coming from David Walker, head of America’s Government Accountability Office. He’s been traveling around the country for several months now on a “fiscal wake up tour” in an effort to bypass federal bureaucratic bullcrap and put out a direct warning of America’s looming financial disaster based on its profligate reliance on credit and its unfulfillable entitlement programs. He’s not talking about an impending crash but a mounting crisis — namely, national insolvency — with a foreseeable eruption date. “I would argue,” he told 60 Minutes, “that the most serious threat to the United States is not someone hiding in a cave in Afghanistan or Pakistan but our own fiscal irresponsibility . . . . If nothing changes, the federal government’s not gonna be able to do much more than pay interest on the mounting debt and some entitlement benefits. It won’t have money left for anything else — national defense, homeland security, education, you name it.”
More recently, as in, just yesterday, the Financial Times quoted Walker as drawing a direct comparison between modern-day America and the late Roman Empire: “Drawing parallels with the end of the Roman empire, Mr Walker warned there were ‘striking similarities’ between America’s current situation and the factors that brought down Rome, including ‘declining moral values and political civility at home, an over-confident and over-extended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government.'” Comparisons to Rome may seem like they’re a dime a dozen, but when the comptroller general of the U.S. makes them, they take on added weight. And need I remind you that Walker is saying exactly what Morris Berman and others have been saying for quite some time now? The parallels with peak oil and its ongoing transition from being viewed as a fringe position to a mainstream concern are obvious.
Equally obviously, the current panic in the financial markets is distinct from the message of national danger and decline being presented by Berman, Walker, et al. But distinct doesn’t mean separate. America’s financial greed, along with that of all the other modern nations who have imitated us Yanks by selling their souls to the gods of financialization and consumer capitalism, stands as the bass note underlying these distinct melodies.
And what does it all mean in the end? As indicated by my reference to soul-selling above, I’m preoccupied lately with the issue of spiritual and psychological investment, as in, where do you invest your sense of self? What do you depend on for your sense of happiness and stability? In what basket are you putting all of your spiritual/psychological eggs? In this regard, I’ll give the final word to a couple of my favorite authorities.
From James Howard Kunstler, from his recent blog post “Margin Call,” the material view: “The upshot is that we are going to find ourselves a poorer nation. There will be far fewer people with money. There will be far fewer buyers of repossessed McHouses, bass boats, etc. Even the houses in Sagaponak and the Manhattan apartments will go cheap. The effort to pretend our way out of a financial crisis will fail. Sooner or later the recognition will set in that all that ‘boo-yah’ was dreamed up. The United States swindled itself. We became a nation of such greed-crazed clowns that we committed financial suicide in an orgy of self-deception.”
And from Jesus of Nazareth, the spiritual view: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also . . . . No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth . . . . Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”