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Thomas International Center
December 2008


Ralph McInerny


Getting and Spending



In the year I was born the Great Depression began and now, as I take on emeritus status, the economy seems to be sinking fast.  I take neither credit nor blame for these twin facts. The political remedy in the United States is to shovel a trillion dollars and more into the economy to bring it back to life. I have been struck by the fervor with which we are all urged to buy and spend, forget about saving for the nonce, enact our role as consumers.

We have long been told that ours is a consumer economy and when the Church speaks of consumerism it is not to hurry us off to a shopping mall. Benedict XVI asks us to take a salutary lesson from the current troubles. What after all is the meaning of life?  "The world is too much with us, getting and spending," as a poet wrote long ago. Politicians apparently do not read poetry.

Economics has been called the dismal science. It is doubtful that it is a science in any meaningful sense of the term, but it is certainly dismal enough. That entrepreneurs should enlist the help of shareholders in producing something that is for the common good is certainly meet and just. But recent events have brought home to us that there is a financial world that rides piggy-back on this basic transaction. There are those who regard stocks and bonds as others regard the lottery. Their aim is to make money, not to support the making of a useful product. Everyone has seen the Dantesque scene of frantic traders in the stock markets of the world, buying and selling with the sole aim of turning a profit. Money makes money. Surely this is a dubious undertaking.

Anthony Trollope, one of the greatest of Victorian novelists, wrote The Way We Live Now, putting before our eyes the meta-activity to which I refer. Stocks in a non-existent railroad are sold right and left, and investors hope to get out of it with a profit before the hoax is revealed. We have all learned how our prudent plans for the future are affected by the financial class. There is a sense of bewildered helplessness. Let us hope that not many will be adversely affected by all this. Meanwhile the Pope is there to tell us that there is an investment where neither moth nor rust consumes, nor thieves break in and steal. God can bring good out of evil.


Ralph McInerny