Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Framework of Calling And Character

We have arrived at a teaching moment. Bring on the teachers.

Eight trillion dollars in equity wealth has disappeared from our collective wallet. In an effort to offset the deflating effect of that loss, we are going to use the government’s credit-worthiness or printing presses to put more money in circulation. This cascading infusion will not be free of cost, and the extraordinary decline in the value of equities and home values—along with the accelerating reduction in wage income, stock dividends, and the like—will be painful.

And these developments will not be culturally neutral.

The financial institutions, as the perceived enablers of wealth creation, are always disproportionately influential, as are those who dream up new products and services to capture our spending power. So what happens when the wealth-enablers suddenly exit stage right while many in the wealth chain check to see whether their law firms have bankruptcy specialists? Is this a back-to-basics moment? Might even those who inhabit the precincts of corporate and government power experience a moment of humility? If so, to what effect?

My father was forced to leave college after his sophomore year to help support his family. The Depression had crippled the family hardware store and everyone in the family had to work to avoid its failure. The Depression proved to be a searing experience for my father (indeed, for a generation), informing the rest of his life. He conserved, avoided debt, and always bought locally to support his neighbors. He also spiritually and intellectually paired many of the post-Depression cultural traits with his faith. He recognized the wisdom of his spiritual fathers.

Too many act as if the source of morality is best placed in a container and kept far away from the suites of power.

As an active practitioner in business and its oversight, it is clear to me that most businesspeople do not pair the disciplines of faith with the practices of business. Too many act as if the source of morality is best placed in a container and kept far away from the suites of power.

Daniel Bell, in his book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, observed: “When the Protestant ethic was sundered from bourgeois society, only the hedonism remained, and the capitalist system lost its transcendental ethic. Work was no longer a calling, but a mere means of seeking pleasure as a way of life.”

Our society of late has worked to remove limits on what can be bought and experienced. Virtually anything can be had—right now—courtesy of a loan. For decades the prevailing business ethic has been dismissive of limits. If there are potential buyers, produce it. Foundational principles have been contorted: to many “liberty” has come to mean “libertine” while the “pursuit of happiness” is reduced to the pursuit of pleasure. Should we then be surprised when the entire financial ecosystem is corrupted by what has turned out to be a disastrous profit chase?

Sociologists, who are eager not just to track cultural decline but to identify the cultural shapers, have generally concluded that cultural formation is a top-down affair. At the top is collaboration between those who conceive and those who act. Further down the pyramid of responsibility we find a collaboration between marketers and advertisers. Presumably those like my Dad, who as a retailer was well down the pyramid, and certainly those who purchase products and services, are expected to be mere pawns. It did not turn out that way in his case; he and much of his generation borrowed reluctantly and avoided a return to the excesses of the 1920s.

when money is easy, and especially when it is decoupled from real work or plausible amortization schedules, society suffers extraordinary indignities at all levels

I have not spent my life parsing data to figure out cultural cause and effect. But it seems clear that when money is easy, and especially when it is decoupled from real work or plausible amortization schedules, society suffers extraordinary indignities at all levels of the pyramid. A smaller-scale illustration occurred about midway through my term as Chairman of the FCC. I began to hear from indignant parents whose sons were calling telephone sex lines drawing on their parents’ credit with the phone companies. “Protect us,” they asked. In response I asked the Commission to disallow the disconnection of a phone line because the subscriber had not paid that part of the bill associated with a sex service, and it complied. The letters ceased and most teenagers chose not to buy heavy breathing with their own resources.

Of course, a loss of buying power does not automatically translate into a more benign culture. However, when the profligate and their enablers are the occasion for losses that attack pensions, college funds, retirement savings, and most of the other investment vehicles used by prudent people for important social responsibilities, the unquestioned pain awakens us to an especially fertile teaching moment. It has been decades since the Great Depression, and it seems that the lessons we once learned have largely been forgotten, often—especially—by highly educated people.

Dallas Willard commented on the dynamics of a market economy in “The Business of Business,” a 2006 Provocations essay. He observed that:

at this particular time in our history, moral calling and moral character have no weight and are thus unable to serve as established points of reference for individual practice and public policy. They are not treated as aspects of reality which must be appealed to in judgment and with which any decent person must come to terms. There is no legitimating support, therefore, for the idealism of young people who go into the professions, nor for the justifiable demands of the public to be served.

It is a convincing framework of calling and character that must be restored if professional life is to be directed in a manner which—surely everyone deep-down knows—is suited to its function as provider and protector of the public good and thus of individuals throughout our neighborhoods and beyond. The greatest challenge facing an officially post-Christian world is to provide that framework. To this point it is not doing very well with the task.”

Too often today’s decision framework is guided by a version of the excuse all parents hear from their children. “Everybody else is doing it,” says the child. But at the beginning of a new market scheme, everybody else is not doing it. There is indeed a pyramid, but many who are near its top nonetheless act more like mimics than leaders. True cultural transformation will require both moral clarity and energy up and down the pyramid.

In this new century, we now have a boundless supply of stories to illustrate and reanimate the wisdom of Solomon, whose thought offers a rich tableau of enduring truths. But we need institutions capable of trans-generational influence; institutions whose motivation is not novelty but truth, and yet which understand that truth-telling needs to find its voice in modern idioms and forms. Proverbs need to be told and re-told, and contemporary narratives can add immensely to their persuasion. The Trinity Forum and its peers need to do an even better job in underscoring the need for—and beginning the construction of—a “framework of calling and character.” Waiting for others to do the job would be as imprudent as is the conduct we lament.

Written by Al Sykes at The Trinity Forum

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