The familiar ad asks, “What’s in your wallet?” A better question to ask is this: “What constitutes your true wealth—on a personal and a communal level?”
Scott Russell Sanders, distinguished professor emeritus of English at Indiana University, has written an article that explores that question. The article, “An Economy of False Profits,” appeared in the Notre Dame Magazine, Summer 2018 issue. Sanders argues that “our national allegiance to the monetary bottom line” threatens to negate other important values in society. In this country (and elsewhere) we have been conditioned to think of value in overwhelmingly economic language, that is, in terms of what can be measured in money—whether it is stock markets, salaries, profits and losses, sales figures for the holiday, box office yields, or auction prices for paintings.
We have been taught to believe that the higher the Gross Domestic Product, the better. But the GDP is misleading since it measures only the market value of goods and services produced in a given period. Sanders says, “As gauged by its effect on the GDP, the opioid epidemic has been good for the economy, and so has the Iraq War.”
Sanders maintains that owners of financial wealth look after their interests “ruthlessly.” For example, the health care industry has nearly 3,000 lobbyists on Capitol Hill. The pharmaceutical and health services industry over the last 20 years spent nearly $4 billion in lobbying. Similar facts could be said about the oil and gas industry, insurance companies, telecom services, and other major sectors of the economy.
It is logical, Sander writes, that if financial wealth is our greatest good than “any constraint on the pursuit of money is bad.” He gives the example of the burning of coal, a major industry in his home state of Indiana. Since the 19th Century physicians have known that “coal smoke is toxic.” It poses numerous health risks: black lung disease, asthma, neurological damage, cardiovascular disease, kidney dysfunctions, and various cancers. Given this knowledge, why hasn’t government banned the burning of coal? One elected official opposed regulations against coal, saying, “low-cost energy is vital to our economy. We must continue to oppose overreaching schemes of the EPA until we bring this war on coal to an end.” Is our economy more important than our environment?
What other values are we sacrificing to the “cult of money” or to the economy besides health? Sanders lists a few more:
+ We are sacrificing beauty. “We are treating Earth as a warehouse of raw materials for exploitation and as a dump for waste.”
+ We are sacrificing democracy. The Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that political spending by corporations was protected by the First Amendment. Says Sanders, we are “handing our elections to the highest bidders.”
+ We are sacrificing community. By allowing gross inequalities in financial wealth, we are losing our sense that we are living in a shared world with responsibilities for one another.
Sanders expresses concern for tax cuts that drain funds for schools, parks, libraries, and other public goods. Financial wealth matters, of course, says Sanders, but it already has “more than enough advocates. It is the wealth we share that needs defenders.”
Sanders’ words made a deep impact on me. They raised questions like these:
* Who lobbies for public goods such as schools, parks, clear air, clean water, the arts, wildlife? Who lobbies against legal injustice, the suffering of animals, the extinction of certain species?
* Do I give any evidence that I have bought into the “cult of money”? What constitutes my wealth?
* What would Jesus say about these things? OR what has he already said about these things? Do Jesus’ teachings and example have relevance for these issues?
* What does the Catholic Church (most recently Pope Francis) say about economic and environmental issues?
I encourage your reflection and I welcome your comments!
A retreatant recently directed me to a singer from Minnesota, Sara Thomsen. Today’s song, “By Breath,” is from one of her CD’s. The refrain is: By breath, by blood, by body, by spirit we are all one… The verses sing of air… water… earth… and fire. I think her music is quite beautiful. And the photos are lovely too.
Please feel free to respond below to this reflection, the questions, or the song. I love hearing from you!