rLiving 23: Mortgage Crisis (Directness, Power)
Posted by Simon on February 18, 2011
Money, like power, gets a bad rap. It’s seen as so purely evil that we just cripple ourselves with guilt about having it or wanting it. Or else we resent, then reject, the guilt and instead embrace money as though it were God himself, the source of all life and happiness. The Bible calls it “greed, which is idolatry” (Col. 3v5).
But money is actually a major cause of human relationships by mere fact that none of us inherently have everything we want or need: we have to trade. We’re forced into a relationship caused by something I have (in the nature of material, skill or time) that you want. And vice versa. ‘Money’ is often the means of that exchange. And that is a very good thing. In millions of fair and equitable transactions every day around the world, from markets in Soroti, Uganda to corporate offices in Boston, MA, relationships are established and built upon and people get and give what they want.
The evil of greed and idolatry is that it focuses on the means, money itself, rather than the ends; a fair trade relationship in which we both gain what we were seeking and even build something new in the process. The other evil of greed and idolatry is that it lusts in power over others; it relishes in being able to extract more than it gives. It leads to injustice. Finally, its irony is that it’s never satisfied. To the question, “How much is enough?”, Rockefeller wisely responded, “just a little bit more.”
Relational Proximity Dimension #1 is “Directness”. My relationship with someone is better and healthier the less mediated it is. It can be mediated by technology or other people: these reduce our ability to communicate fully and know each other better.
Relational Proximity Dimension #4 is Parity. The greater the asymmetry of power between me and someone else the greater the potential for difficult and strained relationships. This asymmetry can be real or perceived, and its affect on relationships can be more about the use and misuse of power than the mere existence of power disparity.
I contend that the more a relationship is mediated – that is, the less direct it is – the weaker it is, because more mediation means less knowledge. And less knowledge means less trust. Less knowledge also means, I think, ‘less human’. When we don’t know people we render them less than fully human, less than ‘normal’. It explains why we demonize some and idolize others – we’re literally ignorant about them. So the ‘less-than-human’ becomes an object, an item, something to generalize about but not an individual with a name, a story, a past and a future.
So if we consider a relationship mediated by an unfathomable array of individuals, institutions and mathematical formula, then throw in ‘disparity’ (unequal power), I think you have an explanation of the mortgage crisis: Relational distance caused less knowledge, then less consideration, then less proper care for the human being at the end of the money chain. There wasn’t a human being at the other end, in fact, they were too distant to even be noticed.
One shouldn’t ascribe evil intent to Wall St bankers, necessarily. Greed and idolatry could just as easily be ascribed to the house buyers. No, relational distance and power asymmetry were objective facts of the matter. Even a heart of gold at either end would have had trouble ensuring an equitable trade, because between the hearts of gold were bureaucratic institutions and non-human mathematic formulae whose goal was, ostensibly, to minimize financial risk and maximize financial profit for the Lender. [UPDATE: This paragraph originally started with “One shouldn’t ascribe evil intent just to Wall St bankers.” This implied we should ascribe evil intent to house buyers also, which was not my intent! Instead, this paragraph was meant to point out that greed/idolatry is neither the sole preserve of Wall St bankers, nor, necessarily, the functional cause of the problem.]
We have a dilemma, however, and I’ll end the post with this. The financial wizardry behind the crises has just been an extension of the sound and prudent engine behind the economic explosion of the last 50 years: the pooling of money and the spreading of risk. What needs further investigation is how to manage the dilemma of relational directness and financial stewardship in such a way that it fosters parity and human flourishing in the context of trading relationships.
[See the introduction for the background to this series and the five dimensions of Relational Proximity.]