A Total Breakdown in Trust

The recent Madoff scandal, along with the ongoing Blagojevich farce, are almost too repulsive to blog about. The sheer chutzpah of the banker and stupidity of the politician are breathtaking. The Panglosses among us would like to believe that a “few good men” could have averted something like the banking crisis–a Bullworth-meets-Carlyle theory of history. But it’s increasingly apparent that our Darwinianly structured markets and politics have made fitness synonymous with greed and self-dealing in far too many settings.

That’s one reason why this Speaking of Faith interview with moralist Parker Palmer is so refreshing. It is rich with ideas and insights, and at the core are Palmer’s ideas about the necessity of trust and community. Here is a brief glimpse of the ideas discussed:

Alexis de Tocqueville [essentially argued] that the French Revolution happened long before it happened. The eruption that shattered French society at the end of the eighteenth century was the result of small seismic shifts that had been accumulating for decades deep underground. If people had paid attention to the tectonic instabilities caused by greed and injustice, and had responded wisely to the nervous needles on their inner seismographs, the “Reign of Terror” might have been avoided.

A parallel point can be made about the economic terrors that now engulf America: at some level, most of us knew they were coming. Who doesn’t know that a society in which the rich get richer while the poor get poorer is a society that will someday have to pay the piper? Who doesn’t know that when a relatively small fraction of the world’s population uses its power to command and consume a disproportionately large fraction of the world’s resources, the chickens will come home to roost? Who doesn’t know that an economic system that encourages us to live beyond our means and refuses to regulate greed is one in which our avarice will come back to bite us? Who doesn’t know that at every level of life, from personal to global to cosmic, what goes around comes around?

[Unfortunately, while r]eclaiming identity and integrity in personal and public life may make you a person who evokes the better angels of our nature . . . it will not improve your “bottom line” — at least not in the understanding of that phrase that has landed us in so much trouble. Take, for example, the companies that banks hire to identify people on the verge of foreclosure, people so desperate to salvage their homes that they can be conned into signing up for yet another mortgage scam. Who cares about destroying these families’ finances, along with the credit market itself, as long as the scammers’ bottom lines improve?

Palmer has great wisdom to offer in the face of the terrible incentives we all face in a “devil take the hindmost” society. And his book The Courage to Teach is a great guide for educators as we try to take stock of the moral challenges of our own institutions and profession.

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