Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Prudent People


Today I am going to put in a word for the older brother in the Prodigal Son story.  You know the story, the younger son of a wealthy father asks for his share of the inheritance before his father has died.  His father gives it to him and the younger son takes off for a far country, I figure California, and runs through the entire fortune on wine, women and song and ends up working as the junior assistant deputy intern pig slopper on a pig farm, which for a Jewish boy, is not a good career move.  So, he finally decides that he would rather admit defeat and go back home.  The hired hands on his father’s farm live better than he is and so he heads home.

When he gets home, his father sees him coming from far away, and orders his servants to prepare a huge celebration for his returning son.

Here is the biblical text of what comes next:   This story is in the 15th chapter of Luke.

 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
   28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’    31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” 
About a year ago, I preached a sermon in which I spoke up for the younger brother, the Prodigal Son.  Because there is a lot to be said for taking risks, being adventurous, striking out on your own and trying to make your own fortune.   We admire people like that. 

But today, I want to speak up and put in a couple of good words for the Older Brother, the crabby, uptight, judgmental, goody-two-shoes older brother. 

It seems that there a more than a few older brothers around.  I call them prudent people.

Our country has been through a credit bubble – lots of money was to be made in lending money and as a result too much money was lent to people.  For a while, it seemed that there was very little risk involved in lending money.  Now, lots of people are stuck with loans they cannot pay, and lots of financial institutions carry loans that they cannot collect.   The creditors want to be paid back even if it drives the rest of the country into bankruptcy.  People are rebelling.   I am over-simplifying, of course.

But there is a group of people who throughout the credit bubble resisted the temptation to borrow much money.  They borrowed less, saved more, and consumed less.  They were counter-cultural; in a culture that pushed credit and consumption, they went without, or went with brand X, the local college, the used car, smaller house, the driving vacation. They were prudent.  They were responsible. 

Prudence is imagining yourself looking back at this moment and saying, “well, I shouldn’t have done that.” These prudent people looked ahead into the future and looked back to choose a less risky course for their lives. They were personally responsible and everything that has happened has reaffirmed the wisdom of that course in life.

The dramatic downturn in the economy in 2008 and 2009 has put the question of economic inequality onto the national agenda.  Sustained joblessness and recession has exposed the extent to which most people have been depending on debt and credit for their lifestyle. 

It’s all coming out now.  Not only is the income and wealth gap between the rich and the poor very wide, the working class and the middle class owe a lot of money as well. 

Now, people are revealing the amount of their indebtedness and the very real ways that their debts restrict their futures.   the prudent ones are resentful.  

Many people feel victimized by the financial system, seduced by easy credit and suckered into debts they cannot pay.   

All of this talk is making some of those who have been prudent very angry.

The idea that those who are deep in debt are "victims" of a system rubs them the wrong way.  The idea that they, the prudent ones, might someday indirectly absorb the cost of relieving some other’s people’s debt angers them.  

Financial prudence has been, to them, a moral question, a question of character.  The sense of doing the right thing has been one of the compensations for the temporary pleasures of consumption.   Other people got plasma TV’s; prudent people got pride in their sense of personal responsibility.

To those who have been prudent, it seems that the only just thing to do is to let those who were imprudent suffer the consequences.  If someone borrowed more than they could afford for a house, then they should face foreclosure.  If someone borrowed too much money for a education for a career unlikely to generate the income to pay back the loan, perhaps they should go bankrupt.  If banks lent money unwisely, then the bank should fail.   If the bank's losses outrun the coverage of the FDIC, then the depositors and shareholders should have to eat the losses.

The ethic of personal responsibility is based on this cause and effect, crime and punishment reasoning.  If a person makes an unwise or irresponsible decision, then there will be negative consequences and that person should suffer them.  To rescue them from that consequence is to create a moral hazard – an actual incentive to be irresponsible. 

It is the logic behind the original restrictions on abortion. The logic was  if women did not face the consequence of unwanted pregnancies, then they had no incentive to avoid sexual activity.   It is the logic behind that recent incident in which it appeared that the audience at a candidates’ debate thought that an otherwise healthy person who chose not to buy health insurance should be allowed to die if suddenly very sick.   If there is no consequence to being irresponsible, then there is no reason to be responsible.

We assume that this is the point of view of the older brother: if the fattened calf is slaughtered for the prodigal son, then there no reason why anybody should stay at home. 

But I want you to hear the story again, because it reveals something else going on as well.

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

What the older brother says is filled with anger and resentment to the father.  “I have slaved for you all these years.  I have followed your every order.” 

And the older brother resents the fact that he has not been recognized and acknowledged for his years of obedience.  “You never gave me so much as a young goat for a party for me and my friends”

Wow!  I think that this is a very insightful touch in this story.  I think that what irks a lot of people is not that the guilty sometimes seem to get away with their sins, but that we are not adequately rewarded for doing the right thing.   If God just spoke to me with an “attaboy – I like the way that you gave it your all at work this week.”   Or a young goat.  Or a tasty tofu casserole. 

The older brother has submitted to the discipline of the prevailing economic order, which was feudal and agricultural.  The prevailing economic order is “Work like a dog for your father and then get everything when he dies.”  That will keep you on the straight and narrow. 

There is anger here, and resentment, and envy.  Envy for the love expressed from the father to the prodigal son, and perhaps even envy for his brother who had a great adventure with wine, women and song at least for a while.

So the prudent people, the ones who avoided ruinous debt and managed to keep their heads above water deserve an attaboy, a pat on the back.  In many ways, they were swimming upstream for these last decades.   They have a right to what they are feeling at this point in our history.

But still, as much as they did well swimming upstream, we have to ask why the current was strong against them.   Why was there so much force behind easy credit and borrowing money?  It was not just because people wanted easy credit.

As we ponder the moral implications of individual’s behavior in the economy, we should understand how the economy works and the role of personal debt in it.

The American alternative to the European welfare state has been consumer credit society. 

One example:  in Norway, college education is Quote Free Unquote.  It’s not free, it’s paid for by taxes.  The individual student does not pay for college education.  In the United States, college education is not paid for by taxes, but is paid for by the student.  And since most students cannot afford it, they borrow the money to pay for it.    We don’t have free education, we have a student loan system.  Consumer credit is the alternative to the welfare state.

Another example:  In most developed countries, health care is heavily subsidized by tax monies.   Here some is, for elders and for poor people and everybody else depends on health insurance from employers.  Since the cost is very high, insurance doesn’t pay for it all, and the unpaid portion is put on the patients’ credit card.   Consumer credit shores up the gaps.

Another example:  we have invested very little in mass transit, hence almost everyone needs a car.  Since most people could not pay for a car in cash, most people borrow the money to buy a car.  Nowadays, most young people cannot even afford the downpayment on a car, so they lease one, another form of consumer credit.

Indeed, as the wages and salaries of most working class and middle class people have stagnated over the last 30-40 years, it has been the explosion of consumer credit that has allowed consumer spending to continue.  Our economy is based on ever-expanding consumer credit. 

Our most profitable companies, the big financial institutions, trade in consumer credit to great benefit.  It is telling to note that in the banking world, those prudent people who only use a credit card for convenience, who pay off their whole balance every month, are called “deadbeats,” since they add nothing to the bank’s bottom line.

Thursday, three days ago was the two month birthday of Occupy Wall Street.  In these two months, I have been learning much about our economy and the role that the financial industry plays in it.  It has been an educational period for us all, and it will, it seems continue.  We’re in a learning period right now; we have been there before.  Ten years ago, most of us couldn’t have told the difference between Iraq and Iran, but we learned because we had to learn.

I think what we are learning is that the economy of this country works for the benefit of the financial companies, Wall Street, in the vernacular.  It is a system that gains much of its wealth from consumer debt and other forms of debt.  How well any of us manage our own debt does not make a difference in the end, except to ourselves and our families.  I believe that any improvement of our life together will only come by reducing the political power of these financial institutions, and in that, all of us, the wise and the unwise, the prudent and imprudent, the prodigal children and the older siblings all have a common interest.

We are called to the virtues of humility and empathy: to see our successes and failures in this economy as not merely the result of our personal qualities: to see the common humanity beneath both success and failure, and to put aside the pride, envy, shame and resentment that stand between us.


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