Sunday, November 4, 2012

Getting beyond [the] disruption

It never ceases to astound me how frequently convergences happen. I appended a personal note at the end of my post yesterday, stating that after 2008 it was no longer to possible to trust businesses. At least in my mind, I was comparing that with a time when people who ran businesses had more character and operated, to some extent, with the common good in mind. One feature of those times was that senior executive compensation was not astronomically out-of-whack with what the company's "floor-level" employees made.

Then, last night before tucking in, I began reading N.T. Wright's book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. In the third chapter of the book Bishop Wright offers some insight and commentary concerning events of late 2008, which he described as "a volcano which had been rumbling away in the background [and] suddenly erupted with horrific force." While acknowledging the causes as complex and multi-faceted, he singles out de-regulation as a major factor, that is, the stripping away of laws and legal regulations that sought to restrict the behavior of financial institutions, seeking to make them operate with more than just quarterly profits in mind.

He cites a conversation he had in 2009 with a friend, who is a senior bank executive, who told him,
they can introduce as many new regulations as they like. Yes, we do some guidelines put back in place; we went too far, giving people freedom to gamble with huge sums of money and do crazy deals. But any banker or mortgage broker can easily hire a smart accountant and lawyer to help them tick all the boxes on the government tells them to, and then go around the back of the system and do what they want
A good, recent chronicle of this, apart from articles about start-ups like Uber who see themselves as so high-tech and innovative that the established rules and regulations don't apply to them, is Greg Smith's recent book Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story. This is not to say that laws and regulations don't need to be changed as the result of new technologies, but it is to say that businesses, which should play a role in proposing changes, cannot be allowed to write them and foist them on everyone.



So, what's the remedy? Well, according to Bishop Wright's banker friend, it's character:
Keeping rules is all right as far as it goes, but the real problem in the last generation is that we've lost the sense that character matters; that integrity matters. The system is only really healthy when the people who are running it are people you can trust to do the right thing, not because there are rules, but because that's the sort of people they are
Indeed, following Christ is not, as Pope Benedict indicated towards the beginning of his first encyclical letter, a matter of keeping rules: Deus caritas est, "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (par. 1).

I am also currently reading Dr. Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As I was reading yesterday, I re-read this quote from Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship, "Only the believers obey, and only the obedient believe." Bonhoeffer went on to write, "It is really unfaithfulness to the Bible to have the first without the second." It is true that to be a Christian, according to Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, "is to be entrusted with the Word of God." Nonetheless, to receive the Bible, which contains God's word, does mean assenting to the proposition that it is literally accurate in every respect. Such an understanding, as Radcliffe notes, "is a very modern and misleading idea."

To obey does not mean to be thoughtlessly compliant, it means to listen, to give heed. It also requires asking questions. On Christian terms, developing character and integrity simply cannot happen without spending time each day listening. Having integrity requires the integration of your life, which resists the compartmentalization that we are often urged to cultivate. Keeping your faith strictly a private matter is perhaps that height of such compartmentalization, making it the anti-thesis of discipleship. The New Evangelization, which Catholics, judging by the majority of the interventions at the recently concluded Synod, seem to think is something institutional, is a dead letter without this recognition.

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