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.