December 3, 2008
Business as Usual?
“Is more and more of this to be the sum total of my life?”
– Millard Fuller
I find the current economic crisis confronting America to be absolutely fascinating. I should disclose that I didn’t and still don’t have the first penny in any stock market thus I didn’t lose what little I do have including my sleep and my mind. Nor was I holding on for dear life to this bipolar roller coaster ride over the past few weeks with more still to come. I feel like a fortunate bystander watching an unfolding train wreck or an ocean freighter breaking up against the rocks and slowly sinking. A decade ago, I tried to make sense of the market by studying how it works. It never felt natural and still doesn’t. Like many American workers, I blindly poured good money into my 401k plan “for retirement” only to pull it all out due to a financial hardship, years later.
Recently, I have come to question how our supposed Judo-Christian nation with its principles of “faith” could be so wrapped up in such a ruthless and often cruel animal driven by the two extremes – fear and greed. If Jesus, a man of faith, were your stockbroker what advice, if any, might he likely dispense to you? How can the quick turn of a particular stock or the entire market produce instant millionaires and billionaires for the few while wiping out the nest eggs and retirements of millions of American workers?
This sounds completely insane, yet so many of us rationalize and justify our involvement based on the market’s historic performance and our greed. Somehow this track record makes the threat of financial pain and suffering or getting burned an acceptable risk. How much manipulation for short-term gain takes place with the flow of bogus information piped over the airwaves, the financial channels, the Internet or in print causing investors to quickly buy or dump their stocks and bonds – remember Enron, Global Crossing and WorldCom? With so much at stake, I suspect there’s a lot.
I have grown only more suspicious of Wall Street since its implosion with its own two hands. The values of greedy brokers, bloodthirsty fund managers, billionaire investors and millionaire corporate executives don’t square with the principles spelled out in the Bible for living in the moment, one day at a time, having faith and trust in God rather than storing up the manna from Heaven as insurance. What are Christians engaged in – more hypocrisy? Where is the first outspoken preacher protesting this fraudulent lifestyle with its corrupt social values, which is endorsed by our federal government? This bloated consumer-driven economy (some 70%) requires lots of personal debt, Americans living beyond their means with no savings, as a key mechanism to keep the gears turning and expanding it every year. Are the economy and the government here to serve “the people” or are the people here to serve the economy and our government?
The righteous continues to zealously focus on gays for living in sin and on hardworking Hispanics for crossing the border as America’s two most unacceptable evils. Never questioned is their direct participation in this cancerous and deadly organism. It has led to men jumping to their deaths from their office building’s rooftop and, in one modern case, a day-trader after suffering big losses killed his family in their south Atlanta, GA home before going on a shooting spree at his trading office prior to taking his own life in Atlanta’s affluent community and its financial district known as Buckhead, in the late 1990’s. This modern office building on Piedmont St. butted right up to the fencerow and the backdoor of my ex-wife’s condominium. I remember that event like it happened just yesterday. Wall Street supplies us with enough fear for a lifetime, but what’s never realized is all the so-called “independence and peace of mind” that their TV ads with smiling, happy retirees and young families living out their dreams.
Where’s Billy Graham, Joel Osteen, Pope Benedict XVI, Rick Warren, Robert H. Schuller or Ted Haggard, the now disgraced former president of the National Evangelical Association? How can Christianity stand silently on the sideline of this devilish game or are they playing right along by financing the construction of their megachurches with once-appreciating stocks? Look at all the rotting manna that GM has banked over the previous half-century as they burn right through $2 billion of it each month just to keep the doors open, the lights on, cars rolling off the assembly line while everyone gets paid. That fortune is burning up faster than the white-hot flame from an out of control rocket ship.
I am now left wondering how did we get ourselves into this mess in the first place. What are the presenting symptoms of this sick patient and what is the underlining cause? Is the government’s financial solution referred to as “the bailout” addressing the many symptoms or the actual cause? Going forward will America grow from this experience or simply act as if nothing happened and revert back to our old ways of living to work, working to earn and earning to spend, like, some rat on a spinning wheel with an energy drink in one hand. There’s a better way to live our one and only life.
The meltdown on Wall Street led to the collapse of investment firm Lehman Brothers, the sell of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America, the government bailout of American Insurance Group (AIG). The government’s earlier seizure of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the run on IndyBank, the distress sale of, both, Wachovia Bank to Wells Fargo and Washington Mutual to JP Morgan Chase, the continued infusion of cash into banking giant Citigroup and to Bear Sterns, last spring.
Some were allowed to fail and we were told that others were just too big to. That sounds like a serious problem that shouldn’t be repeated. Shouldn’t these financial empires, corporate behemoths be required to downsize, “right size” by selling or spinning off some of their assets? Can U.S. taxpayers afford another round or two of bailouts for everyone either now or later? Can we risk the growing exposure to the rest of our economy from one troubled conglomerate or an entire industry?
The actions of the Federal Reserve Bank, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the Bush Administration and Congress agreed to spend over a trillion dollars to buy stocks and bad debt in America’s largest banks, bad debt in the form of home mortgages, credit cards and in student loans gives the appearance that the U.S. economy’s engine simply ran out of gas. Again, are they treating the symptoms or the root cause?
Did our gas tank unknowingly have a leak whereby all the fuel drained out of the bottom and the motor simply cut off? Will patching this old tank through the injection of massive amounts of cash, allow us to fill it back up so we can restart the American economy and put our nation back to work? Or, is there a much deeper issue that no one realizes or cares to acknowledge? Washington, Wall Street and most economists think we have an addition problem – a component is missing from the soup.
I’m convinced that we have a subtraction problem – something already in the soup has turned it rancid. This element has to be identified and removed just like a piece of dead tissue has to be cut out by a surgeon’s scalpel, if the patient is going to live. No amount seasoning and cooking can cover up the foul smell and taste of rotting fish. Adding silicone breast implants to a dying Lady Liberty won’t resuscitate her. That’s what we’re really looking at – a dead civilization.
In my brief writing career, a new friend and surprisingly an early admirer happens to be a used car salesman of all people. Can you believe it? Are you a little taken aback? Well, actually he owns an automobile dealership – seven different lines with eight stores. Originally, the dealership was setup to sell GM’s Oldsmobile line by Joe’s father, in the 1950’s. Today, Joe Bullard has grown his family business to include GM’s Cadillac, Hummer and Saturn (2 stores) brands, Infiniti, Land Rover, Jaguar, Acura, and Mitsubishi. He has enjoyed many good years in the car business including this past decade.
However, the abrupt economic slowdown has forced him to close his Hummer store and he has just announced immediate plans to close the Mitsubishi store, after 21 years – forever. And he’s not alone. Other dealers are closing new car stores with no plans of reopening them after decades in business, both, locally and around the country. “Analysts have said they expect the dismal trend to continue throughout 2009, and the national Auto Dealers Association has estimated that 700 new car dealerships will close this year, up from 430 last year.”2 I find their business decisions to be pretty alarming and very telling of what’s to come.
This week, in our latest exchange of emails I posed the following question to him. I asked, “Who’s to blame for this mess?” My motivation for writing was to get a rise out of him. I went on to write how the blame for this crisis should rest at the feet of the America’s rich – namely those working on Wall Street, in Washington DC, sitting on corporate boardrooms and all those playing rounds of golf at country clubs, i.e., his friends and contemporaries across America. They want to enjoy the benefits, the perks without any of the social and political responsibilities that come with it.
After all, a lot of lies have been sold by America’s wealthy down to the middle class and to the poor about how we should live our lives through the incessant consumption of goods and services financed with debt to make us look rich and feel better about ourselves while putting in a 40, 50, 60 or 70 (hours) at the office, each week. How crazy and dangerous is all this nonsense? Look at the condition of the American family – it’s in total disarray. There’s a fifty percent failure rate in marriages with kids being raised or pushed around by strangers in conscienceless public school systems and in daycares with its unskilled and inadequately paid workers. In every one of my schools, 50% was always an “F”.
Joe is a business and civic leader in our community. Every new and used vehicle leaving one of his lots has emblazoned his white cursive name on the automobile’s rear. As a result, everyone in town knows his name and his occupation. He’s smart, driven and very charming, as car salesman go. He’s been very generous to me in his praise of my work while serving as a surrogate to my own family and old friends who are emotionally unavailable to acknowledge my progress.
Joe’s short response to my original email was that there are plenty of candidates to blame. In my reply, I agreed with him, but I then went on to challenge him by saying that “GM, their dealers and [their advertising agencies] on [NY’s] Madison Ave. have long convinced car buyers of a lot of things that weren’t necessary true or in the interest of their customers or these companies as they now head into bankruptcy. Isn’t a change in conscious thinking and responsibility needed throughout capitalism, in corporate America and in Washington? (The lack of our moral character and not jobs is America’s #1 crisis. It’s the greatest national security threat. It’s greater than al-Qaeda or anyone else. We are our own problem.)
I continued by asking, “My question to you is given your God-given talents, resources and responsibilities in the greater context, are you going to operate any differently? Where is God in all of this insanity? Where’s the course correction in your philosophy and in how your company will operate going forward?
Are we, Americans, in store for more of the same? Where’s the desperately needed spiritual change? Won’t you step up and do your part to end the big lie of consumerism even if it hurts the bottom line?”
Joe wrote back, “Good Questions.” To be continued…
At the top of this essay I quoted Millard Fuller. Ever heard of him? This Auburn University graduate with a law degree from the University of Alabama Law School began his business career at the young age of six when his father bought him a pig with instructions to fatten it up and to sell it for a profit. More farm animals were bought and later sold along with other business ventures. By the age of twenty-nine, Millard was married with two small children and president of a very successful mail-order business when he became a millionaire.
His life was his business, his integrity was suspect, under great stress his health was terrible, the marriage was failing, but they had all the material comforts that one could ask for – a big house, luxury cars, a cattle ranch, a speedboat and a cabin on the lake. However, a storm was brewing on the horizon and it finally swept through Millard’s world when his wife called him at work to say that she was leaving him and taking their two kids to New York City. Upon earlier reflection, Millard had already asked himself, “Is more and more of this to be the sum total of my life?” Soon after, he flew from his Montgomery, AL home up to Niagara Falls, NY.
While in his hotel room, Millard caught the beginning of a movie on TV. “The story was about a young woman missionary in China. She fell in love with a young military officer. He wanted to marry her, but it would mean the end of his military career. He turned to a village mandarin for some advice. The old man thought for a minute and then replied, “A planned life can only be endured.” Fuller was struck by the words.
Immediately, he called his wife and asked if he could come see her. She agreed. After several lengthy and emotional conversations they decided to start their marriage over. In doing so they agreed to sell his interest in the business along with all their material possessions, which the proceeds would go towards building decent housing for indigent people with no interest loans and for no profit.
Millard Fuller went on to become the founder and the president of an organization that would one day be known to the world as Habitat for Humanity International. For twenty-five years, he oversaw the construction of some 85,000 homes for nearly a half-million people. Fuller is the recipient of numerous humanitarian awards including the Medal of Freedom. He faced a crisis, took a hit only to realize later that the hit was actually a gift.1
America is facing its own storm of epic proportion, in so many ways, with our own spiritual, physical, financial, political and cultural health. What will be the legacy – business as usual or will we stand up and take the hit? “Is more and more of this to be the sum total of [our] life – more lies, consumerism, debt, addiction, insanity and premature death?” Should we put a fork in this turkey and say it’s done? Or, will each one of us make a conscious decision to live out the rest of our lives in a new, different and exciting way by discovering and sharing our hidden talents and our lives with one another?
I call it waking up and getting a life. It’s the rich life that I have come to know and enjoy. We could change America for the better and touch the world almost overnight. We have more choices on how to live than we even know or realize – the possibilities are infinite. Won’t you jump in and join me?
Can you tell from reading these writings that I am having the time of my life? Well, I really am. We should all be living happily, but it does take doing some hard work – finding God – as we understand Him, getting rigorously honest and cleaning house (getting rid of all our emotional and spiritual baggage we are toting). Sorry, but there’s no shortcut to this critical character-building task.
Going on a diet won’t do it, building a small business into a successful one won’t do it, nor will falling in love, buying a new outfit, reading the book club’s latest selection, yoga or eating only organic foods. None of those fine activities can serve as a replacement to the long overdue painful and emotional work that will ultimately lead to us dropping our addictions, setting us free while being restored to sanity.
I am available for speaking, consulting and political advising. My other essays can be viewed at my blog @ http://www.toxicnation.blogspot.com/. I can be contacted via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2008, 2010. All Rights Reserved. “Business As Usual” by Ted Burnett.
Ban Breathnach, Sarah and friends: A Man’s Journey to Simple Abundance. “A Planned Life can only be Endured” by Millard Fuller. Copyright © 2000
Mobile Press Register Thursday, December 4, 2008 edition
“Mobile’s Joe Bullard Mitsubishi to close”