I'm in a dithering fog as to what to call myself, politically. I thought I was a conservative. But any day on Rush and his friends leads me to believe that being conservative means that I should applaud the following news:
Reuters reports that "Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's largest publicly traded oil company, on Monday reported a quarterly profit of $10.7 billion, capping a year of record earnings dominated by surging oil and gas prices. The results pushed up Exxon's profit for the year to a staggering $36.13 billion -- bigger than the economies of 125 of the 184 countries ranked by the World Bank. Profit rose 42 percent from 2004."
Rush and the usual laissez faire crowd (including the National Review, WSJ, maybe the New Criterion, the Spectator, et al.) are quick to insist that freedom means economic libertarianism, and that full-bore capitalism is good for everyone, and that somehow the success of Exxon is tied up with the moral health of America.
There are statistics galore to prove points. And all the points seem to hinge on the central doctrine that nothing should interfere with the dyad of supply and demand, and that price should be determined solely by this pairing. Thus, many people demand gasoline. Exxon has it. Exxon should be able to charge whatever it wants, knowing that demand will only increase.
I'm sure the process is more complex than this. I'm also quite certain that there is much I fail to understand about why Exxon really must make 10.7 billion in 3 months. Yes, there is much research and development. Yes, they have a really big complicated job that I wouldn't understand. And yes, there is so much in the arcane world of finance that is quite beyond me.
But I understand, quite clearly, a number of more immanent phenomena. Today, I stopped the gas pump at $20, and my needle couldn't reach midway. Unfortunately, the economy of my personal finances never will require the services of a consultant or wealth manager. My little economy is very simple. I understand it all too well. Paying for gas is diminishing my ability to pay for other things.
I also understand that I am in a better financial position than many people, especially in the neighborhood of the gas station where I bought half a tank. How do they get by? I wondered, as I watched a clattering 1982 Oldsmobile wheeze by, five people enclosed in rusted, dented steel. They, too, will never need a wealth manager.
But, I am told, it is good for me and these people for Exxon to make so much money. Somehow, we are all better off. I wondered about this, as the end of $20 dripped out of the hose. It hit me right then that gas will never go back down below $2 per gallon again. The people like me on the "demand" side have proven their willingness to pay and pay. So if yesterday it was hurricanes in the Gulf, then today, the explanation will be Iran. Tomorrow it will be Venezuela. The day after, it will be $3.
Rush is sure this is okay. He is also sure that the weather is not changing. The economic libertarians all agree that the marketplace corrects itself. Everything is okay.
But everything is okay only in the realms of the arcane, and in the fog of mystification. Everything is okay in the calculus of multi-national economies. Even catastrophes like tsunamis and hurricanes are transmuted into windfalls by the alchemy of neo-capitalism.
But in the simple arithmetic of the working poor, 36.13 billion dollars in profit only means that a lot of money has been lifted out of thin wallets. Simple, working poor people do not understand the fabulism of market-defined valuations. They understand the value of a gallon of gas merely in terms of potential miles -- miles that must be driven to work or to the store.
Simple, working poor people understand little of economics, except this: when a store raises the price on something, just because that something is scarce, then that store is guilty of gouging. These people, in their simplicity, cannot understand the difference between such a store and a company like Exxon. Conservatives, especially Republican conservatives, need to understand that as things become more difficult (like gas becoming more costly), then the working poor will take their social conservatism to another tent.
A weird concatenation of events (one of them was a nice, grandfatherly President) has re-defined conservatism, nowadays, to mean both an allegiance to traditional values and institutions; and a commitment to economic libertarianism.
But "Conservatism" did not always mean such a libertine okey-dokey-ness to business. Time was when conservatism and mercantilism recognized each other as foes in the political debate. In both realms of Christendom, East and West, business interests were regulated by ecclesial principals. In particular, the medieval tradition of the guild sought to keep prices at responsible levels, where the purchase price reflected a dynamic compromise between the needs of the purchaser and the work and expense of the seller. The guildsman, freeman, aristocrat and serf may be pitied by today's egalitarian cult, but even if they were always reminded of their medieval status, they were never, ever insulted with so vile an affront as the label "consumer."
Why has the conservative movement countenanced an economic philosophy based on "consumerism"? And more to my personal point, why has conservative Christianity embraced the same? Is it simply because this economic system was produced by Calvin's re-engineering of Europe? Did the love affair with usury that makes neo-capitalism possible begin with the Protestant rejection of all things Catholic?
Never mind that for now. It may be that Calvin had something to do with Exxon's big party. But for today, what is there to do?
The Church has never had much luck in meddling with government, and it doesn't seem possible that any branch of government can do something about Exxon's profits. I am not aware of any significant Scripture or patristic passage where the Church is enjoined to participate as an institution in a secular or anti-Christian government. So I won't suggest that the Church demands higher taxes for the rich, or higher corporate taxes, or any sort of regulation on multi-national corporations like Exxon.
Instead, I will go back, like a real conservative, to a simpler past. Let us pass out of the mystified fog, and call a spade a spade. Let us look upon companies and corporations as ones who are addressed by the economic prophecies of the Church.
Let "Exxon," for example, stand as one hearing the words of Amos:
"I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes -- they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted" (Amos 2.6-7).
Let it stand as the "rich" who are addressed by St. James:
"Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you ... Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he cannot resist you" (James 5.1,4-6).
And for the real, dyed in the wool conservative who cannot believe that such stern words could be visited upon profiteers, perhaps he should hear these words from the Theotokos herself:
"He has shown strength with His arm, He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent empty away" (Luke 1.51-53).
It was the rich man, not Lazarus, who asked for a drink. It was the rich man who got called a "fool" by God, no less, while he was resting from filling the barns. It was the rich man who got compared, negatively, to a camel threaded through a needle's eye. These are some of the words of our Lord Himself. The rich aren't any better off at the end of the book, in St. John's Apocalypse. And St. John Chrysostom has a lot to say about the rich -- so much so that he was booted out of his parish (i.e., Constantinople).
It is interesting to note that these invectives hurled at the rich are usually delivered without qualification. The Lord does not preface His warnings with, "I say this to all the rich people and business except the ones who are nice." It appears, from the mass of Christian literature on the subject, that the rich are regularly and sternly called to task: simply by virtue of being rich they are expected to give to those who have not. This is not a re-distribution of wealth. This is almsgiving to the point where enormous sums of profit are expended until more reasonable figures appear.
That is what Exxon and all corporations and rich people are expected to do. Whether or not they are Christian. That is the sole reason why rich companies and individuals are rich -- to give to the poor, to fund "good work":
"And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. As it is written, 'He scatters abroad, He gives to the poor; His righteousness endures forever'" (2 Corinthians 9.8-9)
I don't mean to be shrill. I remain conservative, and committed to the liberty of the family, and the economic solidity of the home. All I offer here, to suggest some clarity and confidence in the Church's critique of things economical, is that we simply think of rich corporations as exactly that: "rich."
And as the "rich man," so let corporations like Exxon stand, and be addressed by everything Amos, James, the Mother of God, and the Lord Christ have to say about the meaning and ethics of wealth.