Soul-Searching in the Aftermath

Ray Waddle

Matthew Crawford is a mechanic and a philosopher, a combination that might save his soul and ours too. 

Crawford – engine repairman, political philosopher, former think-tank staffer – senses a gnarly unease about twenty-first-century economic life, and it goes deeper even than the anxiety of the Great Recession.

Meaningful work ought to be useful work, he says, and too often it is not. People are losing a tangible relationship to the everyday world. “Manual competence” is in retreat: we don’t fix things, we just buy new ones. Shop class is disappearing from high schools. People know less and less about workaday tools and solutions.

He meets people who are eager to revolt. They are dissatisfied with their office personalities as knowledge workers and embarrassed by consumer waste. They want to be more frugal, more self-reliant, more connected to what they do.

“Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy,” he writes in Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Penguin Press, 2009).

“We want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it.”

It’s been nearly two years since the banking crisis went full-flare and threw the nation’s economic assumptions in doubt. Today the economy remains fragile, lending is sluggish, personal debt is too high, and regulation reform is barely in place. A grinding anxiety continues: a Brookings Institution study says the pain of job loss and falling income is reaching deep into middle-class suburbs, not just lower-income neighborhoods.

If there is a silver lining to these clouds of desolation, it’s that the turmoil has forced people to consider new ideas about economic life, or revive some

old ones. Out of the worry and disgust, people are breaking through to fresh convictions about fair- ness, the true aims of society, the meaning of the Gospels, the meaning of human flourishing.

The Unspoken Contract

“It used to be that when our economy thrived and productivity grew, pay for working people rose accordingly,” writes Kurt Andersen in Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America (Random House, 2009).

“But for most of the last decade, that central piece of the American social contract simply stopped operating.”

We can, he says, get in touch again with native buoyant hopefulness and ingenuity. We can, he says, defy the cruel winner-take-all casino mentality that has been the nation’s governing economic metaphor for three decades.

“The die-hard opposition of powerful institutions (oil companies, agribusiness, the health care industry, teachers’ unions, and more) to fundamental change is implacable, for sure, but it isn’t invincible. We can rediscover common sense and the better angels of our nature.”

It’s not easy to hear this reckoning. The recession arrived amid a deteriorating partisan national climate that was in no mood for consensus-building or basic fact-finding. As the public struggled to grasp the bad economic news, dueling populisms took up media space: one populist movement blamed the government, the other castigated Wall Street. Web sites and cable networks promoted pundits who came armed with their own sets of facts, charts, resentments, and followers.

The twitchy ideological chaos seemed to mirror a larger coarsening cultural current, borne on the momentum of a libertarian tech revolution and deepening inequalities of wealth. A values shift had been under way for years – toward a social Darwinian contempt for the underdog, an impatient disdain for financial prudence and oversight, a fatalistic belief in luck rather than providence, and ultimately a distrust of each other and of ourselves..

The angry cultural conflict over the economy did not rest on the Sabbath. People brought it to church too, leaving many clergy staffs scrambling to ad- dress the new poverty among their own churchgoers but also unsure how to assess the meltdown itself or speak about it from pulpit or public square.

For decades, in sermons or public statements, many a Christian leader had habitually elevated free- market ideology to biblical stature and divine blessing. The habit intensified with America’s exhilarating Cold War victory over communism. Prosperity gospels and confident capitalism made an easy fit, as long as Jesus’ sterner warnings about wealth were astidiously ignored.The sins of the market economy – the Enron-style criminality, the extreme bonuses, the lack of accountability for those complicated securitized mortgages – were passed over. Now the excesses of business-as-usual had brought catastrophe, and those spiritual leaders had little to say.

Messenger of Hope

One of the few public ministers to confront the moment was Protestant activist Jim Wallis. The title of his new book announced defiance – Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street: A Moral Compass for the New Economy (Simon & Schuster, 2010). In it he says the nation’s runaway financial deficits reveal a moral deficit, a hunger to recover values that bolster family life, support the environment and the common good, and reject empty materialism.

“To make sure we do not simply repeat the mistakes of the past that led to this crisis, our economic recession must also be answered with a moral recovery,” he writes.

Wallis proposes a series of twenty “moral exercises” to awaken readers to their own power in an economy that seems to be run by vast, distant forces. Recognize budgets and calendars as moral documents, he writes: they reveal how we choose to spend our money and time. Make a list of priorities in life. Learn lessons about economic choices found in the sacred texts. Reach out to your neighbors. Research a cause and volunteer. Pay off credit balances every month and destroy extra credit cards. Look hard at where you bank and invest your money: make sure “the places where you have your money reflect your values.”

He concludes: “Be a messenger of hope, and commit your time and energy to help create a moral compass for a new economy.”

Others aimed their campaigns at particular ills and solutions. One remarkable crusade resurrected a fight against an ancient word and its modern abuses – usury, the exploitation of debtors by charging them high interest rates.

“It is time to re-instate usury laws by capping interest rates at 10 percent,” declared the “Ten Percent Is Enough” Campaign, a national initiative of the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation citizens organization. (see

The campaign attacks the interest rates charged by banks, credit card companies, and “payday loan” lenders – sometimes 30 percent, 40 percent or far more. Such predatory rates violate civilized and biblical norms that had been accepted for centuries until federal regulations on interest rate caps were repealed a generation ago. Advocates, including a growing number of politicians, have argued that rate reductions are not only the fair thing to do, but they would revive the economy by helping debt-ridden families get back their ability to spend money.

A Plague of Usury

What is so bad about usury? Shouldn’t the market itself determine what lenders charge? In a scathing commentary last year, labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan wrote that the legalized return of usury in the late 1970s has been disastrous for economic and moral life both. It is bad for moral character because it motivates banks to make loans to people who can’t reliably pay the money back, since it’s more profitable to stretch out debt for years at high rates than to see it paid off quickly. 

More than that, Geoghegan said usury has eaten away at the nation’s industrial base and destroyed middle-class jobs. When usurious rates spike too high, the financial sector gets too large. The economy’s wealth flows in wrong directions.

“With no law capping interest, the evil is not only that banks prey on the poor (they have always done so) but that capital gushes out of manufacturing and into banking,” he wrote in Harper’s in April 2009. “When banks get 25 percent to 30 percent on credit cards, and 500 or more percent on payday loans, capital flees from honest pursuits, like auto manufacturing. Sure, GM is awful. Sure, it doesn’t innovate. But the people who could have saved GM and Ford went off to work at AIG, or Merrill Lynch, or even Goldman Sachs. All of this used to be so obvious as not to merit comment.”

This was climate change of a different sort. The partisanship, the deregulation, the ruinous debt – all these were marks of a moral transformation of the social climate over the last thirty years, and with little protest until now. The old deference to community religious standards, which had held commercial and moral extremes in check, was no match for the new rules of market behavior.

Accentuate the Positive

What was behind it? A surging national narrative of tax revolts that denounced government power and sneered at the common good could account for some of it. A naïve faith in a rational, self-correcting market did its part. But writer Barbara Ehrenreich sees villainy in a different American ideology – positive thinking, the unchallenged habit of disdaining realistic assessments of conditions on the ground. Positive thinking turned religion into therapy, misjudged the Iraq war, and put the entire economy at risk. Cadres of professional optimists (medical, military, financial) told us to dismiss disturbing news and embrace the charismatic power of cheerful thoughts, or stand accused of stick-in-the-mud pessimism. American business especially welcomed mind-over-matter wishful thinking.

“This was a useful message for employees, who by the turn of the twenty-first century were being required to work longer hours for fewer benefits and diminishing job security,” she writes in Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America (Metropolitan Books, 2009).

“But it was also a liberating ideology for top-level executives. What was the point in agonizing over balance sheets and tedious analyses of risks – and why bother worrying about dizzying levels of debt and exposure to potential defaults – when all good things come to those who are optimistic enough to expect them?”

Will the turbulence of these last years force upon us a market correction of values? Will the bad economy serve as a referendum on utopian market rationalism, unlimited growth, usury, partisan delusions? Can the unspoken social contract that binds us be repaired? Can it even be acknowledged and discussed?

From his motorcycle repairman’s perch, Matthew Crawford says we need a “humane economy” that gives people hope again that their work is useful, tangible, honest, human-scale despite the convulsions of the new century’s economy. Western societies, he says, have learned to organize their institutions to prevent concentrations of political power – “but we have failed utterly to prevent the concentration of economic power, or take account of how such concentration damages the conditions under which full human flourishing becomes possible … ”

Few institutions remain confident enough to caution against giddy wishful thinking and human folly while also speaking out for humane values. But churches can. More of them need to find a public platform again. The healing of human dignity depends on it. 

Ray Waddle is editor-in-chief of Reflections