by Barry Edelson


The Book of Mammon

What would Jesus do? Leveraged buyouts?


Of all the mental machinations undertaken by the faithful to justify their own immoral behavior, perhaps none is quite as shameless as the wholesale rejection of the Bible's not very subtle admonitions against greed. Even nonbelievers can see that the apostles were very serious men, and that St. Matthew was therefore not merely making a suggestion when he said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Nor was Jesus just making a bit of mischief when he overturned the tables of the money lenders. There are no asterisks in scripture: it doesn't say in the small print that "we'll put in a good word for you if you build a new bell tower on the church" or "you might consider a big contribution to your alma mater." To all those who who don't need to rationalize the size of their stock portfolios, it is quite clear that the New Testament officially views the acquisition of wealth as sinful. Not just a bad idea, not just something potentially corrupting of the soul. Sinful. Interpretations not required.

How encouraging, then, that several self-described Christians who are seeking the presidential nomination of the Republican Party — the hereditary Party of Lincolns — should suddenly start waving the anti-greed banner. Presumably, even though they purport to be big fans of the book, they haven't seen the light by reading the Gideon Bible in their hotel room. It goes without saying that the charges made by Newt Gingrich against Mitt Romney's über-successful years at the helm of Bain Capital are motivated by base political calculation, no less than Rick Perry's seconding of that peculiar motion. In Gingrich's case, there's more than a bit of personal animus involved, too, as he is clearly still smarting from the super-pac swift-baggaging that all but destroyed his presidential dreams during the Iowa Caucauses a mere week and a half ago. (Gingrich changing his entire political philosophy because of a personal slight from another powerful politician? Acting recklessly in a fit of pique? Where have we heard that before?)

Notwithstanding that both Perry and Gingrich have spent their entire adult lives fattening themselves indiscriminately at both the public and private troughs, they have opened a Pandora's box of capitalist self-examination that may well be impossible to put aside again. (Wondering where Herman Cain would have come down on this one? Friend of Newt, or capitalist apologist? That would have been just too much fun to watch.) True, the attacks on Romney are well supported by the polls, which show that two-thirds of Americans, including a majority of self-described Republicans, believe that disparities between rich and poor represent the worst social tension in American society today. But polling has never convinced most Republican presidential hopefuls to change their minds about almost anything that sane people tend of believe, whether it's leaving Social Security and Medicare alone, or the imperative of raising a few pennies in taxes on the well-off to complement billions in spending cuts. This isn't just a matter of sticking a finger out in the wind and following it to where the voters are. These are the desperate actions of captains whose ships are sinking, and who don't care if they take the whole navy down with them.

Well, never mind the flawed messengers for a moment. Consider the message: Suddenly in America, we have the specter of conservatives publicly questioning the merits of the financial system, or more specifically, the activities of the kind of private equity firm that once lined the pockets of the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. A handful of people on the right have awakened to the notion that there is "good" capitalism and "bad" capitalism: one kind that builds factories, makes things, and creates wealth not just for shareholders but for employees and their communities, and another kind that sucks the life out of perfectly good if not overly profitably enterprises and divvies up their assets among a bunch of Wall Street suits whose idea of a hard day's work is watching a computer monitor, sharing jokes via email and shaking hands after signing some papers. Ok, I'm paraphrasing. Nonetheless, it's the most startling reassessment of the monetary creed since Alan Greenspan, who, after the 2008 global meltdown, acknowledged that his faith in free markets may have been misplaced. This sounds an awful lot like the lecture that Martin Sheen gave Charlie Sheen in "Wall Street", the industrialist father explaining to the financier son why it's so much more worthwhile and fulfilling to make something instead of just profiting off of other people's money.

OMG — Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich agree with Oliver Stone! Even a lot of liberals don't agree with Oliver Stone!

One anti-Mitt Christian who hasn't jumped on this bandwagon is Rick Santorum. Though a man of deep religious principles, who speaks as though Jesus personally explained his entire value system while they played basketball together in high school in Western Pennsylvania, he is the last man in politics who would criticize any aspect of American capitalism. As someone who made a fortune since being thumped in his re-election bid for the Senate, like countless de-elected members of Congress before him, Santorum is in no position to renounce the millions he thinks he earned from his innate wisdom, charm and talent. That would take an act of cognitive dissonance so wrenching that his rational brain might actually come to consciousness, if only for a brief moment. This is not something that an individual of such profound conviction can allow to happen.

Santorum's consistency is both more telling and more troubling than Gingrich's and Perry's late conversion to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Unquestioning adherence to any system is dangerous, because it not only blinds one to its failings but insists that detractors be denounced as heretics. It never ceases to amaze us how many "social conservatives" won't waste a breath to uphold the personal liberties demanded by progressives and libertarians — never mind the right to marry who you want, they won't even stand up for the right not to be detained without charges, or not to be tortured — but ardently defend the economic liberties of corporations, traders and raiders, whose activities have so recently proven to pose a far greater risk to the population as a whole. Say one thing for Ron Paul: he is firmly in the camp that wants capitalism to be free to go about its business, but he also thinks individuals should be free to have sex however and with whomever they choose, and to consume any intoxicating substance they can get their hands on. (He's still the batty uncle in the attic, and while guys like that sometimes get to be president of countries like Libya, it won't happen here.) How inconvenient it must be for Santorum, who insists that the family, not the individual, is the basic unit of society, that every single right enumerated in the Constitution, which he once swore an oath to uphold, is granted to individuals. The word family appears nowhere in the founding documents. (Sorry, Rick, but the Bible is not one of those documents.) It never seems to have occurred to him that the absence of individual rights would fatally undermine the nation's fundamental social contract, so that there would be no expectation of individual responsibility, either.

Whatever their motivations, Romney's opponents have struck a chord with voters because most people just don't understand how the financial sector operates, and are naturally distrustful of complex systems that are not only inexplicable, but threaten their daily existence. It's not that people simple "hate" Wall Street, or are envious of the wealthy, as Romney fatuously said this week in yet another tone-deaf attempt to explain away why so many voters just don't like him. Gingrich and Perry have set a brilliant trap for Romney that he is never going to climb out of entirely, and unwittingly done the Democrats the enormous favor that has many of their conservative compatriots wringing their hands. Every time voters now think of Bain Capital, they will instantly conjure up that entire netherworld of hedge funds, credit default swaps, futures, short selling, stock options and sundry other incomprehensible instruments of economic manipulation. The more Romney tries to explain how his company did good things, the more he sounds like a defender of those shady practices that got us into the mess we're in, and the more he loses. The more he tries to make the point that wealth isn't a zero sum game, the more he makes people wonder how exactly people like him made their money in the first place. Bain Capital now equals mass unemployment and the foreclosure crisis.

That's the part that people get. The part they don't get is how most of these candidates can claim that God is talking to them, when almost everything they ever did to make money was a direct contradiction of the teachings they pretend to follow. As Garrison Keillor once said, going to church on Sunday doesn't make you a religious person any more than sleeping in the garage makes you an automobile.

January 14, 2012


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