Friday, October 24, 2008


(Week 11 - Friday, Oct. 24)

I reported in yesterday's column about someone who sought my advice concerning whether she should borrow money from a bank for what she deemed to be a creative, but not strictly necessary, purchase; and thereby take on more "debt" that she, and ultimately the larger society, would have to bear. I recommended that she follow as much as possible the best option available with respect to benefiting life, and let whether that meant borrowing money, or not, take its course.

Our nation has recently passed through a similar point of choice, though on a vastly greater scale. This was in reference to the decision about whether Congress should pass and the President sign legislation by which the Federal government would borrow $700 billion from the Federal Reserve in an attempt to "rescue", supposedly, the failing financial system. Within the context of the present monetary system one could make a case for either course of action.

For purposes of this discussion, I would first make an argument in favor of the measure. There is a chance that such an injection of funds will succeed in restoring a measure of order and confidence in the financial system that, in a nation which has largely lost its local subsistence capabilities, we all depend on literally for survival. Standing by while it implodes is not an option. In addition, the bill will put into play billions of dollars of circulating medium that are sorely needed to expedite essential economic activities that people in many areas of life are looking for funds to accomplish. This runs the gamut from paying mortgages, to financing business activity, to investing in alternative energy, to repairing infrastructure, to hiring school teachers, to providing health care, to getting the homeless off the street, to feeding the hungry, to (fill in the blank). It is inevitable that some of the money will reward speculation and end up financing otherwise unproductive and unethical enterprise, but is that any reason to let economic activity that is in this moment needed for pressing human needs to go unrealized?

Next I would make an argument against the bill. Sure it might restore a measure of order and confidence in the system, but only temporarily, and at what price? Taking on yet another round of "debt" will come down as an additional burden on the already buckling shoulders of the productive participants in the economy, and will in the long run only serve to compound the problem and put it off to a more terrible day of reckoning? Admittedly it will provide a useful injection of currency into the economy, but in the larger picture is it not really cruel to allow a society that is addicted to "debt" one more fix of the very substance that is bringing it down? In any case, much of this supposedly needed economic activity is not "needed" at all. A large share of the money will go to reward usury (using money to make money at the expense of one's brother or sister, instead of acting as a financial partner to expedite genuinely beneficial enterprise), and it is doubtful whether the added level of economic activity financed will be worth the damage done.

Whatever one's view of the choice that was presented, the bill has been passed. My purpose in revisiting the decision is not to second-guess the road taken, but to use it as an example for how we might approach such dilemmas. The nation could not have avoided selecting on outward course of action, but inwardly we must explore what we are evidently doing wrong that causes such mutually problematic choices to be seemingly our only options.

We need to step up out of the to-borrow-or-not-to-borrow catch-22 into a new way of thinking for the future. Right now financiers, pundits, academicians, politicians and other "leaders of public opinion" are for the most part not offering much of a conversation to help We the People do that.

Too often in the political realm, for example, the options are presented as ideological arguments. We can hear this reflected in the debate between the Presidential candidates at present where the rhetoric of one is designed to sound plausible to a "conservative" base, and the other a "liberal."

It is interesting to note that history has shown that once a President is in office, or a party in power, the demands of their new duties dictate that they act a lot less differently with respect to each other than their ideological pronouncements would have one believe. Witness in this case how Senators McCain and Obama strain to highlight supposed differences in their respective approaches to the present financial crisis, but in the end support the essentially the same course of action. This is a tacit recognition that, when it comes to coping with real-life situations, ideologies don't matter. Acting out of one's highest consciousness of what is needed in the moment matters.

What, then, is needed in this moment? It is not recriminations about whether the $700 billion deed should have been done. The real question is what have we gained from this experience that can help up us move into the future? Cleary, the monetary problem has not been solved, but if the "bailout" is "successful" some time has been bought. This time of "crisis" is truly a gift if we know what to do with it. I say this, not in the spirit of taking lightly the suffering that people have experienced through its travail, but in the fervent hope that such sacrifice can be redeemed to good account, and its lessons contribute ultimately to their economic liberation.

This hope will be in vain if we cannot lift ourselves up into a higher plane than the one on which the to-borrow-or-not-to-borrow-$700-billion issue was debated. To be sure, we need to make the best of whatever options present themselves in the exigencies of the moment, but it is imperative to leave dogmatic biases about whether, or not, to take on more "debt" out of the question. A primary lesson of this whole "debt crisis" episode, I would suggest, is that ultimately we have no choice but to get serious about the matter of restoring the monetary franchise to the public domain.

Richard Kotlarz

The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites.