Seeking a Moral Compass

Will the recession change us?

Mahatma Gandhi admired the Boston Tea Party protesters, fondly referring to them during his campaign against the oppressive salt tax imposed on Indians by their British rulers. To him, such taxes belonged at the top of his sobering list of mankind’s seven social sins: commerce without morality, politics without principle, wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice. These sins are all still relevant, but two seem particularly prescient in a country winded by a recession: wealth without work and commerce without morality. When did we come to expect money could be made—infinitely and effortlessly—by a kind of opaque algorithmic magic? As Jon Stewart asked of Jim Cramer last year, “Any time you sell people the idea that, sit back and you’ll get 10 to 20 percent on your money, don’t you always know that that’s going to be a lie? When are we going to realize in this country that our wealth is work?”

And when did we allow commerce to be defined primarily by debt-driven consumer spending, creating profits channeled only toward those already at the top of the heap? These are the questions evangelical author Jim Wallis asks in his new book, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street. Unlike the rest of us, Wallis is not asking when the recession will end. He wants to know instead how it will end. Or how it will change us, if at all.

Because, frankly, there is very little evidence that much has changed—there is a record bonus pool on Wall Street this year, even though many fewer people have houses and jobs. But Wallis believes that alongside the visceral anger of movements such as the tea parties, there is a hunger for change away from the empty and destructive maxims—like “Greed is good,” “I want it all,” and as the deliciously selfish advertisements told us, “Because you’re worth it”—to “We’re in this together.”

Part of that hunger is a curious kind of nostalgia, an uneasy sense that something may have been lost, or that our children are being taught poor values. What is striking about the history of the Great Depression is how those who survived it often talk fondly about the values they learned while growing up in a climate of deprivation and uncertainty. In interviews with NEWSWEEK’s Tony Dokoupil, singer Ray Price recalled “Everybody helped everybody. No doors were locked. No food was refused to anybody, ever.” Writer Gay Talese was taught by his father to “take nothing for granted, to be frugal and above all to be self-sufficient.” He believes that if this recession “can end the foolishness and spoiled attitudes of selfish and rich people,” then it “may be exactly what we need.”

In the Great Depression, the reckless profiteers were chastised and regulated, and a welfare safety net was put in place. In his inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt slammed the practices of “unscrupulous money-changers” who “have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization.” “We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths,” he said. “The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”

So what might these ancient truths be? Perhaps respect, integrity, caution, decency, fairness, hard work, loyalty, and a concern for others. For years, we did not scrutinize the values of our villains: we wanted to be like them, and continued to desire that which we could not afford. Wallis cites a study that found that in 2006, two thirds more high-school students thought “having lots of money” was “extremely important” than they did in 1976.

So here’s the problem. Few would argue that the recession should not force us to rethink what we want and love—and how we behave toward those who have less than we do. It is clear that we should be self-sufficient and not rely on debt. That we should live more simply, consume more wisely, think of generations to come, and wonder what desires we want to plant in children’s hearts. So how do we get beyond it sounding worthy and kumbaya? How do we actually shift values? Sarah Palin asked recently: “How’s that hopey, changey stuff workin’ out for ya?” Yep, still loads to do. So do we give up on hope and change? No. Those dressed in revolutionary garb aren’t the only angry ones. Hope is not partisan. And taxation is not the only issue. Bringing decency back into debates, normalcy into pay rates, and ancient truths into temples is going to take a fight.