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Chronicles of American Money

August 15, 2021 (1,962 words)

I.
My nominee for most productive use of the pandemic shutdown would be the esteemed essayist Lance Morrow. Last year while the rest of us were sorting through our attics and basements and closets, and figuring out how to work remotely and conduct Zoom meetings, this 81-year-old managed to produce a breezy, accessible overview of the good, the bad, and the ugly concerning American attitudes on the defining subject of money.

Mr. Morrow weaves a rich tapestry that is part personal memoir, part history lesson, part social commentary, and part cultural anthropology. If there is any other writer you think could bring such a panoramic concept to life, please let me know who that might be. Reading this delightfully short meditation is both an education and a joy.

The democratic acquisition of money and the widespread pursuit of material advancement is what has defined the enlightened modern age. We Americans have always put a righteous spin on this activity, insisting such acquisition and advancement is not automatically at odds with our better angels. We like to straddle the age-old, edge-of-the-cliff tug of war between virtue and wealth – between God and Mammon. In America, the story goes, one can do well for oneself, and still do good in the world. At least that’s the grand premise, the promise we all want to believe in.

Achieving that promise has proven to be elusive. Throughout God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money, Morrow cites one example after another of money’s inherent tendency toward selfishness and abuse of power. Starting with a few prominent case studies from our country’s early days, that show how the fabled Men Who Built America during the Gilded Age accumulated their great wealth in sinful ways. The contradiction is obvious, since these titans were professed Christians, almost to a man.

Other first-generation entrepreneurs are portrayed as being a bit more circumspect, having done a somewhat better job reining in harsh, get-ahead business practices by keeping at least a few of the basic tenets of Christianity in mind. All in all, though, it hasn’t been a pretty picture.

II.
Despite these many unfortunate examples the book is far from an outright trashing of America’s risk-taking, death-defying movers and shakers. In fact, the reader can detect a certain sympathy on the part of the author for the dynamic achievers this young country of ours has produced. And with good reason, one is forced to concede. Since without them and their raging success stories we would never have advanced beyond a state of pilgrim self-sufficiency, and there would be no grand chronicles of American money to discuss and dissect.

Still, one wishes Mr. Morrow could find it in his eloquent heart to spend a bit more time spotlighting the plight of the downtrodden – the ones who have been exploited over the years, to one degree or another, by too many of our dynamic achievers.

On page 119 he does reference the “brutal economic dislocations of the Gilded Age, (which extended to) labor/management violence.” But this is merely offered as an aside, in contrast to the cheerful, inspirational young adult fiction of Horatio Alger, whose 120 volumes were churned out during this same Gilded Age. Morrow’s point being that even in the worst of times a “sweet, providential” vision of American life persisted among the general populace.

Alger’s influential stories were not “rags to riches” fairy tales, but rather a celebration of grit and determination that helps a hero overcome his initial poverty to arrive at middle or upper middle-class respectability. All of which reinforced the idea that in America, success is the natural result of purity of heart and a steadfast character. It is virtue that enables wealth. If you are good, you will do well. Success fulfills the national destiny, and justifies the tremendous trust God has placed in the American project. Such is the essence of our nation’s mythology.

III.
Mr. Morrow’s book gently explores two basic themes: how dynamic achievers often rationalize their tendency toward ruthless business practices, and how the country as a whole has always tried to reconcile such callous behavior with the cherished, self-congratulatory notion of American Exceptionalism.

He outlines two schools of thought that have developed among the body politic, to allow the seamier side of American wealth creation to be refined and purified, and reorganized for the common good.

The first is through philanthropy. Under this model, movers and shakers have carte blanche to lie, cheat, and steal their way to the top – either flagrantly or subtly. Then redemption is earned by seeing to it that hospitals and universities and museums and libraries are erected, in a grand show of public benevolence.

The second is through taxation and government bureaucracy. No need to fret over the selfish and inconsiderate business tycoon, and the rowdy ways his wealth is accumulated. Because at the end of the day we will address the social inequities his behavior helps create by taxing the ill-gotten gains and using bureaucracy to return that money in the form of various programs aimed at the public good.

These two basic models have obviously organized our politics, dividing the citizenry into two opposing camps. This is most unfortunate. Because the real issue, the underlying problem, is not being addressed by either of these two established schools of thought.

IV.
You may think I am laying it on a bit too thick, with talk of lying, cheating, and stealing, and ill-gotten gains. Employing such language may disqualify me in your eyes as a serious social commentator. After all, it’s just such ranting that has gotten hotheads like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren expelled from polite conversation. Which is the very same fate suffered by progressive voices of American Virtue from an earlier age, such as Ida Tarbell.

But I can assure you the descriptions still apply, even if the transgressions are not as overt as they once were.

We have done away with slave labor, child labor, treacherous working conditions, 14-hour work days, 6-day work weeks, etc. Due in large part to the nagging progressive voices of American Virtue. Today, whatever sins are being committed by those amassing great wealth are more of the covert variety, more sins of omission.

To clarify, I don’t believe contemporary business men and women get up in the morning with the express purpose of being deceitful or dishonest. Quite the contrary. I believe most everyone harbors the best of intentions. But there are a lot of moving parts to a commercial enterprise of any size. Countless decisions – some of which are small and inconsequential, but some of which are pretty big – must be made in the course of a hectic day. Even when you are really trying it’s hard to get each and every decision “right” – to do right by all the extended stakeholders involved, such as employees, vendors, and the surrounding community-at-large.

The problem is when the going gets tough, most of these well-intentioned business people allow ethical considerations to fade into the background, as they go into survival mode. Not because they are bad people, necessarily, but because so often it’s just too damn hard and too damn complicated to be conscientious and maintain commercial viability.

This is the proverbial slippery slope, though. Because once a business succeeds beyond the founders’/owners’/investors’ wildest dreams, it becomes just too damn easy to allow ethical considerations to stay right where they are – in the background.

An obvious example is the common practice of focusing on executive compensation and investor return, and excluding rank-and-file employees from any sort of meaningful participation in profit-sharing. Maintaining the status quo in this regard becomes an unspoken gentlemen’s agreement. When a job posting references “competitive salary,” that can be nothing more than a euphemism for “you’re not going to get paid better anywhere else, so you might as well come to work here.”

V.
In evaluating all this swashbuckling economic treachery, Lance Morrow’s fallback position seems to be one of knowing acceptance. He clearly acknowledges the blatant ethical contradictions imbedded in so much American money, but can’t help but admire what the big dogs have done in moving the needle forward for society as a whole. Maybe that’s to be expected of a writer who has been nurtured in the bosom of the establishment all these years.

For instance, on page 96 Mr. Morrow explains the fatal flaw in the ‘taxes and bureaucracy’ model of purifying the seamier side of American wealth creation and reorganizing it for the common good: “The workings of justice in such (bureaucratic) distributions are imperfect and sometimes corrupt, big government duties being more diverse and comprehensive than those of philanthropy.”

This is certainly true, and something most everyone would agree with. But the only alternative being proposed is philanthropy. What goes unsaid here is that philanthropy is simply not diverse or comprehensive enough in addressing our economic system’s glaring shortfalls and oversights.

Then on page 112 Morrow discusses the attraction Communism and Socialism had for a certain breed of American intellectual, in the wake of the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. Faced with the breakdown of “the great, malignant capitalist machine,” these intellectuals were looking to usher in a new society, and restore a sense of basic decency.

As Mr. Morrow notes, they were a bit starry-eyed in this pursuit, thinking people could go on quite nicely without the great machine, “sustained instead by an all-powerful and presumably just and righteous government.” Again, most everyone would agree Communism and Socialism is not the cure for what ails us. But Mr. Morrow sort of leaves us hanging as to just what that cure might be.

On page 120 he seems to be chiding today’s critics of capitalism for the way they have precluded the possibility “that decent, constructive energies might still be at work among plutocrats.” I agree we should not automatically assign nefarious motives to our most successful citizens. But neither should we assume the opposite, that doing well for oneself is an automatic reflection of decent and constructive energy.

VI.
It’s as if Morrow is telling us our only real hope for achieving a more equitable distribution of America’s great bounty is to wait for the plutocrats’ better angels to win out over their lower-order inclinations. As if there is no system of thought available to humanity that can be invoked to bring about a thriving economic environment with justice and charity as its core.

This is where the social teaching of the Catholic Church on economics, starting with Pope Leo XIII in 1891, and running all the way through the 20th century to the current writing of Pope Francis, can come in handy. It fills the gaps in what we mistakenly believe to be the only two alternatives available to us: a no-holds-barred version of capitalism, and a stifling, incentive-killing state-sponsored socialism.

In the course of his book Mr. Morrow makes specific reference to the views of Quakers, Buddhists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Puritans when it comes to commerce and money. But his erudition apparently does not extend to a familiarity with the Catholic Magisterium as it pertains to economic behavior. Which is okay, since nobody is perfect.

But it’s the one perspective that could solve this puzzle.

Let me close by acknowledging my own pronounced limitations. These brief remarks cannot come close to capturing or doing justice to what Lance Morrow has given us in God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money. His achievement far exceeds my ability to reflect on its glory. Please do read this book for yourself, and partake of his wisdom. I am merely suggesting that as wonderful as Mr. Morrow’s latest work is, his is not necessarily the last word on the subject.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
August 15, 2021

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