Seeking a Moral Compass

By Baird, Julia | Newsweek, February 22, 2010 | Go to article overview

Seeking a Moral Compass


Baird, Julia, Newsweek


Byline: Julia Baird

Will the recession change us?

Mahatma Gandhi admired the Boston Tea Party protesters, fondly referring to them during his campaign against the oppressive salt tax imposed on Indians by their British rulers. To him, such taxes belonged at the top of his sobering list of mankind's seven social sins: commerce without morality, politics without principle, wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice. These sins are all still relevant, but two seem particularly prescient in a country winded by a recession: wealth without work and commerce without morality. When did we come to expect money could be made--infinitely and effortlessly--by a kind of opaque algorithmic magic? As Jon Stewart asked of Jim Cramer last year, "Any time you sell people the idea that, sit back and you'll get 10 to 20 percent on your money, don't you always know that that's going to be a lie? When are we going to realize in this country that our wealth is work?"

And when did we allow commerce to be defined primarily by debt-driven consumer spending, creating profits channeled only toward those already at the top of the heap? These are the questions evangelical author Jim Wallis asks in his new book, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street. Unlike the rest of us, Wallis is not asking when the recession will end. He wants to know instead how it will end. Or how it will change us, if at all.

Because, frankly, there is very little evidence that much has changed--there is a record bonus pool on Wall Street this year, even though many fewer people have houses and jobs. But Wallis believes that alongside the visceral anger of movements such as the tea parties, there is a hunger for change away from the empty and destructive maxims--like "Greed is good," "I want it all," and as the deliciously selfish advertisements told us, "Because you're worth it"--to "We're in this together."

Part of that hunger is a curious kind of nostalgia, an uneasy sense that something may have been lost, or that our children are being taught poor values. What is striking about the history of the Great Depression is how those who survived it often talk fondly about the values they learned while growing up in a climate of deprivation and uncertainty.

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