On Money

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One of my sisters keeps horses. She has noticed that if she shows up to feed them later than usual, they seem especially happy to see her. The pathos of this scenario is all the more striking because, in general, we take such scenarios for granted. With carrots and sticks and clever deceptions, we humans purchase the loyalty of our fellow creatures on a daily basis, including each other.

Our purchasing power is typically measured with a yardstick called money, a tool that calibrates the gears of a contraption we ride in together toward the future, the contraption we call our economy. The laws that govern our economy are more like the rules of a game than they are like the laws of physics, because we can change them. But individuals are typically more concerned with their own wellbeing within this system than they are with the wellbeing of the system as a whole, and they rarely think seriously about changing it. And this is the case despite many centuries of experience demonstrating: “That which is not good for the beehive cannot be good for the bees.” (Marcus Aurelius)

In A Plea for the Poor (1793), John Woolman distinguishes “self-pleasing” or “self-seeking” on the one hand from “pure love” or “universal love” or “divine love” on the other. Self-pleasing is the love of the bee for the bee; universal love is the love of the bee for the hive and everything that supports the hive. The tension between universal love and self-pleasing has been described recently as “the tension between age-old desires for a perfect society and the equally ancient impulse to obtain wealth and the influence it brings.” (David Rothkopf, Power, Inc., 2012)

Within the framework of modern capitalism, individuals who speak up on behalf of “a perfect society” are commonly dismissed as “do-gooders,” a term generally understood to mean, “chumps.” But while academic models of rational self-interest predict that isolated individuals will betray each other more readily than they will cooperate (The Prisoners’ Dilemma), in reality, individuals are not isolated, and they cooperate much more readily than the models predict. We Friends are proud of the skills and sensibilities that we have developed over the centuries to foster interpersonal cooperation. These are necessary components for achieving “a perfect society,” but they are not sufficient.

“Divine love, which enlarges the heart toward mankind universally, is that alone which can rightly stop every corrupt stream and open those channels of business and commerce where nothing runs that is not pure,” said John Woolman in A Plea for the Poor. “Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings contrary to universal righteousness are supported; and here oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice . . .” In more modern language, David Rothkopf says in Power, Inc., “The reality is that markets promote efficiency, which in turn rewards scale, which in turn leads to concentrations of economic and therefore political power.”

Friends need to do more than hone our skills of patient waiting, active listening, and cooperation. We have inherited a faith and practice that can help us step back from the persistent demands of self-pleasing. Like John Woolman, we strive to view the world from the vantage of universal love, and from that vantage, take a long, hard look at the world of wealth – a world of carrots and sticks and clever deceptions, a world where the richest one thousand people have assets equivalent to the two billion poorest, where the recent gambling losses of multinational financiers have thrown hundreds of millions of people into poverty, and where giants of the energy, transportation, and agricultural sectors are shaping public environmental policies and putting our planet at risk. We need to take a long, hard look at these scenarios without taking it for granted that they are beyond our influence or that we must just wait to be fed. ~~~ 

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