Economic crisis a deadly sin misdiagnosed

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • February 5, 2009
What we know for sure is that the economic crisis that began perhaps as long as two years ago and began roiling the stock markets and the real economy in the summer-fall of last year is real. We know it is causing huge amounts of real pain, provoking increasing amounts of real fear and causing consumers, producers, politicians and pundits to assume the position of a deer caught in the headlights. There is no shortage of advice, most of the same in deep conflict with each other. And the other thing we know for sure is that we don’t know how bad it will get or how long it will last.

What we don’t really know, but seem to argue about nearly ad nauseum, is how it all started. The immediate cause cited by most is mortgages to Americans who couldn’t afford houses. The underlying cause is argued to be the greed of the banks making the loans and the cupidity and greed of the borrowers. And the poster image that encapsulates the entire mess is bankers spending $1,800 on waste baskets while earning tens of millions in bonuses and corporate executives flying in on private jets to plead for public dollars to bail them out.   
The idea that greed is at the root of this whole mess has a certain appeal; there are more than sufficient examples of individual and collective avarice surfacing to make the case in a court of law or at least the court of public opinion. And theologians and ethicists have made convincing arguments of the same. But it is as probable that another less attended to deadly sin might be working out its own logic in our economic struggles — the sin of pride. 

What’s really at the heart of this mess is the belief shared by millions that we could confidently control the functioning of the economy, that we had designed systems that could maximize increasing financial gains forever and that fuelling our never-ending wants was possible, cost-free and an essential element of our entitlement. Despite repeated warnings and admonitions from the Pope to the head of Greenpeace to a score of prominent philosophers, ethicists and clerics of all denominations that we were living in an unsustainable fantasy world of materialism and inequality, we believed not only that we knew better but also that we simply deserved better. 

In one way pride is more difficult than greed to diagnose and harder to allege. Greed is what the other person does, pride is, like it or not, within us all and encouraged in a subtler fashion. Advertisers appeal to our sense of entitlement, governments respond to our demand for entitlements. Our expectations are not excessive, simply what is our due.

Church leaders in England and Canada have asked, and perhaps even demanded, of our political leaders that they take into account poverty, morality and ecological perspectives in designing a way out of what we are all assuming is a temporary, albeit indeterminate, economic mess. And at the heart of these learned, humane and religious pleas is a suggestion that perhaps we have lost sense of the damage pride and economic hubris has wrought.

We live in a world where the number of people without access to clean water threatens to outnumber those who enjoy the same. The list of resources being depleted at an alarming rate (everything from the fish in the oceans to the oil that fuels our current economies to the sustainability of the planet itself) should be provoking serious thinking. Instead we are given arguments about the best way to sustain our standard of living. Pride asserts that we deserve what we have and stands in the way of wrestling with building more sustainable and equitable relations with each other.

It might seem an odd quibble to assert that at the root of our present predicament is one deadly sin over another. While greed is normally associated with the accumulation of wealth it has a tinge of the individual about it, a claim that someone else might be responsible. Pride, often cited as the first sin from which all others flow, may actually be the more apt description of a system gone terribly awry. Figuring out the source of our trouble might be more important than figuring out the solution to our troubles.

(Kavanagh is a Senior Producer with CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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