Money is the New Religion

The Mall

The upscale mall near us occupies a huge contiguous tract north of the freeway. Its enclosed Main Streets have two levels, open to the non-sky, as if each building had a balcony upstairs connected with its neighbours. At the end of each street is a gussied-up big-box store – two-story of course – opening onto the mall. Stairs, escalators, and flyover bridges connect levels and balconies, so the penitent can wander in wonder through the architecture of the age. Light filters in overhead through cloudy glass. Along the streets and balconies gaudy alcoves harbour treasures and artifacts. Seen from above, the two streets intersect, forming a cross. Soon after it was built, my wife said, That’s our Chartres.

History

The great cathedrals embody all that was noble and profane in the Middle Ages. Although Chartres was built with remarkable speed, it was a product of several generations. Begun in 1194, it was mostly complete in 1250, by which time many of those involved with the heroic effort were second or third-generation. The stained-glass windows, miraculously preserved through centuries of war and weather, are narrative art for a time when few could read.

But there is more: the cathedral was also a free-trade zone outside the purview of the feudal lord. Merchants set up their stalls in the zone and even in the nave itself, although wine-sellers were occasionally banished to the crypt. Taxes on the stalls were payable to the clergy.

So far the activity is merely profane – that is, secular, or not connected to religion. (Profane is from the Latin pro and fanum: before the temple.) But as human custom tends to, the commercial practices proliferated and evolved, until by the late Middle Ages indulgences had become the Wall Street of the twentieth century or the indiegogo.com of the twenty-first. The Butter Tower of Rouen Cathedral was capitalized by selling pardons for the use of butter in Lent.

Belief

It seems that mystery is the father of faith. The architects and artisans of Chartres responded to the beauty of the world by doing their best to compete with it. Their homage to God was an artifact and a space that educated and inspired wonder and ascribed God as the author of all. The cathedral was the railroad of the nineteenth century and the airline of the twentieth. Man as artisan constructed huge works from technologies on the edge of human understanding. Did the traveller on the Orient Express understand the physics of the steam engine? Does today’s passenger understand the physics of flight or inertial navigation? Do the viewers (or the makers) of the film Gravity understand orbital mechanics?

Where am I going with this?

I admit I am groping. But we are again today in an age of indulgences. We know that capitalism and free markets are the foundation of democracy – or at least that’s what everyone says. They say that we should bow to the market, should let it decide everything, or else we are threatening freedom and democracy.

Today’s received wisdom is the same as is was in the Middle Ages – only the object of faith has been changed. We understand the market about as well as we understand orbital mechanics. We are invited to have faith in matters beyond our understanding. So we bow not only to technology, but also to the market and the almighty dollar.

The Range of Human Endeavour

We humans span the noble and the profane and continue into the ignoble and the self-serving. It happened with religion after Chartres was built. The practice of indulgences took a few centuries to moulder and spread, but it was one of the principal motivations behind Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses, nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther said, Wait a minute – this is not what Jesus meant at all. Thus came the Reformation and more wars and Protestantism and Christianity without profit.

Not much has changed in five hundred years. The noble – the making of art and the building of large, co-operative works – is still followed by the profane – normal commerce. But inevitably – and today is no exception –  the profane is followed by the self-serving, and the whole process is debased. We are once again at a crossroads like the one Luther faced down in 1517.

Inventive mankind has gone from barter to money to lending to banking to capital formation to finance. The average man gropes along behind progress, believing in what he cannot understand. Meanwhile elite MBA’s twist the corporation (human co-operative effort) into re-structuring for maximum stakeholder value. (The definition of stakeholder is left to the MBA’s). Banks no longer turn savings into investment capital but instead operate for maximum profit and market share, extracting their cut not as interest but as fees. (There is no interest rate connected with fees, so there is no appearance of usury.) Investment banks invent financial products which they peddle to pension funds and then bet against in the market, making huge profits at the expense of their customers.

These shenanigans depend on our faith and our ignorance. They twist the institutions of our society so they work not for mankind but for a small elite.

This small elite no doubt believes in itself. That, too, is human. Like all of us, they construct a world-view. They are smarter and work harder, and deserve their spoils. Their efforts are a natural winnowing.

But that is their world-view, not the Word of God. There is no reason for us to believe it.

I also understand why we believe in money. It is a matter of survival, and is getting more so every day for us, the great unwashed. But let us not worship money. That can only lead us to suckerdom, as P.T. Barnum famously observed. We would do better to open our eyes and learn and not lose the hope of human co-operative effort toward great things. Perhaps we might even tape a thesis to the door of the mall.

As inspiration we can remember Job, centuries before Christ and millennia before today’s selfish deeds. Covered with boils and tempted by cynicism, he could still say:

I know that my redeemer liveth;

and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:

and though worms destroy this body,

yet in my flesh shall I see God.

 

Job 19:25

Management: Blinded by Success

Blinded

We have become very good at management – so good that we have set it (and ourselves) on a pedestal. But management is not a panacea. We throw it at every problem, expecting the usual success. More and more we are encountering intransigence as we attempt to solve problems with measurement and money.

Two of the most pressing problems facing us today are health care and education. The cost of the former is out of control. The quality of the latter is declining and testing isn’t fixing it.

The reason is straightforward: health care and education require a relationship between individuals – one person helping another. True, there is more to it than that – but the basic requirement remains. Ask anyone whose life was changed by a good teacher.

Atul Gawande

I am a huge fan of Dr. Atul Gawande. He writes like a dream, takes me into his world of medicine and surgery, and seriously addresses the problems facing his profession. But his most recent article Big Med (the New Yorker, August 13) took me into new territory. He describes how hospitals (including his own) are forming into conglomerates, and compares the management of these conglomerates with that of The Cheesecake Factory, a large and successful restaurant chain.

I devoured the article with my usual fascination and perhaps a touch of trepidation. The next day, I brought it up with one of my sons, who had also read it. He had been horrified, he said, both by the idea that health care could be “managed” like a restaurant chain, and by the “creepy” remote monitoring (by closed-circuit TV) of doctors on the job.

We had a lively discussion. In hindsight I can see my son brought me around to his point of view.

Finland

For the last decade the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been ranking countries in educational achievement using PISA tests. (Program for International Student Assessment). Finland has consistently ranked at or near the top. What is its secret? Respect for teachers.

The Finnish position on education is the opposite of the North American (especially the U.S.) position. There are tests, but they are not standardized. Teachers make and give tests to see if the student has learned and if they themselves have taught. Teaching is a higher-prestige occupation than medicine or the law. Teachers must have a degree, but it is not in education. The degree itself (at least an M.A. with a thesis) is the license to teach. When asked what might make them leave the profession for, say, business, Finnish teachers cite not higher pay, but loss of autonomy.

Management or Collegiality?

As recently as a generation ago, doctors and teachers could and did operate alone: the private practice and the one-room schoolhouse. Since then huge advances in technology have made that impossible. So much knowledge is available today that health outcomes are compromised if the patient’s medical history is not instantly available to the specialist. Learning is limited if the teacher cannot back up her teaching with the Khan Academy and Coursera and learn from these herself. As Dr. Gawande points out, doctors (and teachers) must continue to learn from each other.

All this argues for collegiality. Good management can make sure fresh food isn’t wasted at The Cheesecake Factory and it probably has a role running schools and hospitals. But as Finland’s example shows, it is counterproductive when used to control doctors and teachers.

Why is this so? And why now, more than even a decade ago?

Financialization

Financialization. The word is not in the dictionary, at least not yet. But there it is in Nicholas Lemann’s Transaction Man, the excellent and revealing article about Mitt Romney’s background in the October 1, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. With financialization – financial “products”, hedge funds, and private equity – management has been taken to a new level where, effectively, only money matters.

Of course, money is called productivity and efficiency among other euphemisms. But what it means in practice is that human interaction, energy, and invention are now virtual qualities at best, and at worst ignored altogether. Is it any wonder that in North America and especially in the U.S.A. health care and education have the highest costs in the world and some of the worst outcomes?

Human Potential

George Romney told his son, who idolizes him, that “there’s nothing as vulnerable as entrenched success.” During Wednesday night’s debate Mitt himself said his goal was to maximize the potential of each individual. How ironic is it that the son’s policies and politics – the real policies, not the slight-of-hand wordplay visible Wednesday night – are systematically dismantling his cherished management and stifling each individual’s God-given gifts, effectively fulfilling his father’s prophecy?

Mitt Romney may, in his heart of hearts, believe in the sacred gifts of each human being, and even in the absolute necessity of their being channelled into paths that benefit society as a whole. It is, alas, probably too late for him to see how his actions are undermining his belief. That is for us to see and correct.

First Letter to the 99%

Dear Young People,

It’s winter. The heady autumn of Occupy Everywhere is now last year’s news. Mitt Romney says corporations are people. Newt says government doesn’t make jobs, private enterprise makes jobs. All politicians are promising jobs. None of that helps if you don’t have a job.

A young man interviewed on NPR has a job. He says his company doesn’t represent him politically. He says his company doesn’t have the right to use the profits it makes on HIS WORK to vote against him.

Perhaps you gave gone into debt (like the country) to get an education and you still can’t find a job. You are bummed, and rightly.

This is all pretty discouraging stuff. But wait. Start from another perspective.

The government doesn’t need you. No corporation or small business needs you. The jobs they may or may not offer can be filled by you or by someone else, interchangeably.

But the world needs you. There is no one else in the world who has exactly what you have to give.

In my post of December 11, 2011, Advent and Jobs, I asked, “Who decides what my work will be?” If you’re young and you don’t yet have dependents, you have a chance to give the finger to The Market and decide for yourself.

This is not easy, and I have no illusions that it will be possible for everyone. But I write this in hope and in the belief that looking clearly at the problem is a good start. So before you take that job as a “greeter” or as an “associate”, think about the work you want to do. All work – however strange and useless it may appear to The Market, is worthy of your human dignity if it comes from the heart. So try to make time – quiet time – to listen to that voice inside – and it will come, but it is a soft voice – that will tell you about the work that you are meant to do, the work that will be your vocation. Then fight for it with all your might.

I don’t know how you’re going to do it. I would tell you, but I know the solution is unique to you and I am not privy to it. What I do know is you might have to ask for help. It could be as little as asking a parent, sibling, or friend with a credit card to pay $2.95 to iPage or $3.15 to FatCow every month so you can have your own website. Set it up with WordPress and you can work on it anytime you have access to a computer and WIFI. It may take a year or two to learn the ropes and find out how to attract people to your site and figure out what you are selling or giving away. At the end of the second year you owe your parent, sibling, or friend $72.

Then who knows? When Mitt or Newt or even Barack gets around to offering you a job, you might just say no.