Time for a sarcastic rant
“Skyrocketing Oil Prices Stump Experts“ So proclaims the headline in the Washington Post for Thursday, May 22, 2008. And according to the article all the “experts” are joining in with all the players in a blame game for determining who is responsible for what is happening. No one apparently has a clue as to why the prices are soaring, though in other news the big oil companies are reporting the largest profits in the history of business. But that probably is just a coincidence.
From where I sit, as a priest, not an economist (economics is a subject I’ve never studied just experienced), it seems a factor common to much of the free enterprise system is greed. In his economic theory, Adam Smith assumed social pressures would keep unbridled greed in check within capitalism. He also felt that the very driving force behind capitalism was each person’s personal greed; so greed in his theory was something that could be tapped into for the common good – as long as people feel there is something in the system for them, they will gladly work to satisfy the greed of others.
Before modern economic theory, greed was thought of as a sin – St. Paul called it idolatry indicating that greed makes a god out of money or out of self interest. (One old adage says, “Money is a good servant but a bad master.”) Greed’s other names have a more sinister connotation: avarice, rapacity, covetousness, graspingness. It is even forbidden by the Ten Commandments (which fortunately in our society where we separate church and state, and thus economics and ethics, we only like to enshrine them in stone around court houses and so don’t have to let them change our hearts or govern our free enterprise system). At least in Orthodoxy’s hymns of Holy Week, greed is the motivating factor for Judas deciding to betray Christ. In the Fourth Century in Cappadocia, it is most note-worthy that during a severe famine, the rich were accused of being greedy, not when they refused to give away their stockpiled foods to the hungry, but when they refused to sell their stockpiles so that others could have food. The Church was willing to buy food from the wealthy to give away to the hungry poor but the rich would not part with their stockpiles. So there wasn’t a shortage of food, but some were willing to allow others to starve just so they could feel comfortable in having more than enough for themselves. Greed is not just about money, it is also about willing to be a have at the expense of the have nots.
Greed was even condemned as illegal under such names as usury, but gradually it became euphemized as “profit” and thus became acceptable to most – as long as they were benefitting by it and not suffering from someone else’s gain. Generally, Americans are not opposed to profit or greed as long as it has no negative consequences for them. Thus things like slavery, sweat shops, child labor, minimum/livable wages, opposition to fair trade, have not always bothered Americans, if they mostly experienced the benefits of the greed which gave rise to these evils – such as keeping prices down. And as long as some are making a “profit” it can’t really be considered all bad. Profit in this thinking is always a virtue, and perhaps is the highest good imaginable. That is why no expert would ever think that profit (a.k.a. greed) could possibly be the cause of the skyrocketing oil prices which consumers experience as all bad (but some players in the oil trade are experiencing as really good even if they don’t know why they are allowed to feel as good as they are feeling).
Of course as is widely accepted today – you can’t legislate morality, and since profit is a moral issue, you just can’t govern it by law, which maybe one of the mysteriously hidden explanations for the skyrocketing price of oil which is so stumping the experts.
But like with the banking-real estate-loan pyramid-scam mess – where everybody can blame everyone else’s greed for the fiasco – there is good news and bad news for the consumer. The bad news is we all suffer as a result of the delirious greed of a few executives which trickles down through the system to investors and traders and refiners and producers. But the good news is that if we try to find WHO is responsible, we realize that nobody did it. Thankfully enough no humans are responsible for our economic woes. It is just profits that got out of control and eventually the system will correct itself without any human intervention and no one will have to feel guilty about having been responsible for the problem. The system which has made greed a virtue has also made responsibility (formerly known as guilt) a thing of the past when terrible, icky people claimed that some behaviors were “wrong.” Fortunately for some (and that is no pun) today they no longer have to worry about responsibility, or guilt, or morality, or good and evil, for they are only trying to make a profit (which is always good or at least morally neutral). Unfortunately it leaves the experts without an explanation for skyrocketing oil prices or property values. And we sure don’t want the experts left in the tragically uncomfortable position of not having an explanation. That is a poverty the experts just are not comfortable with.