Monday, March 21, 2011

Put Your Money Where Your Soul Is

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
         —Matthew 6:21


When Theodore Malloch, author of Doing Virtuous Business, calls capitalism an ethical enterprise and religious calling, I believe him.  When he says spiritual values like stewardship, humility, and patience enable free enterprise, I agree.  When he claims responsible capitalists form humanity’s best bastion against predatory financiers, I nod and smile.

But when he seeks virtuous capitalist exemplars at Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods, turning a blind eye to egregious labor violations, environmental records, and criminal convictions, I run.

Though mainly Christian, Malloch says every religion supports faithful enterprise.  He explains the virtues well, deftly citing scripture and multiple economic philosophers.  But when he leaves abstractions and regards the real world, his entire book turns into a pro-corporate whitewash.

I especially enjoy Malloch’s encomium to Tyson Foods CEO John Tyson.  Google “Tyson Foods” and “class action.”  Tyson has been sued in recent years for gender bias, hiring undocumented workers, withholding wages, and deliberately mislabeling food.  If Tyson weren’t a CEO, we’d call him a felon.

But Malloch calls this a “left wing caricature,” dubs trial lawyers “predators,” and praises Tyson for opening his heart to forgive his workers.  Come on.  Once he’s broken that many laws, refusing to bear a grudge doesn’t matter.  Tyson’s company has committed crimes.  By manufacturing quasi-religious justifications, Malloch is an accessory after the fact.

Edit: it's even worse than I thought.  Click Here for an exposé on this book's true, deep-rooted dishonesty.

Mark Stevens skips forcing religion to excuse abuses and declares that Rich is a Religion.  But even less will I pray at that church.  Like Malloch, Stevens praises reasonable, upright values, but applies them to an appalling rogue’s gallery, while heaping disdain on workers.

Bad enough that Stevens praises Sam Walton and Carl Icahn as apostles of his faith.  Both were/are notorious bullies with legendary disdain for workers.  Walton admitted in his memoir that he disregarded any laws which inconvenienced him.  Both lived modest, frugal lives, but so what?  If someone stays at a posh hotel where "hot dogs, beer, and potato salad" runs $88 for four, I’m unimpressed when he's too parsimonious to pay the check.

But then Stevens openly disparages hourly workers, who can only earn as much money as they have hours in the day.  These suckers pale, in his exegesis, beside his boyhood neighbor, who owned five lucrative dry cleaners.  If his neighbor worked in one store, four others still made money.  Indeed, if he stayed home, he still made money, which is the only way to get rich in Stevens’ faith.

Pause, though, and consider why they made money.  I suggest it was because somebody stayed there doing the work, probably for an hourly wage.  By sanctifying wealth, Stevens turns those who create that wealth into sinners.  Not for nothing did another religious leader say that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

Malloch and Stevens could both stand a good dose of Wendell Berry.  In What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth, the award-winning poet and farmer proposes an invigorated approach to wealth, community, and society.  Though Berry, like Malloch, starts from a Christian perspective, his heart lies with “the least of these,” not those who rule others.

Berry exposes the rot beneath Malloch and Stevens, and beneath an economic structure based on consuming resources.  Whether we mean natural resources, financial resources, or human resources, Berry points out, they all exist to be consumed.  We have mortgaged our posterity for a Faustian grab at wealth beyond our gifts.

When we see how financiers sell debt at a profit, while the gap between workers and paymasters reaches near-feudal levels, Berry says we cannot doubt how the promises of false industry let us down.  Yet Berry sees the problems running much deeper.  Post-industrial poverty only exists when we lose our sense of place.  We must reclaim traditional virtues of neighborliness and community, alien to big business.

Corporations, governments, and central plans inevitably yoke us to means of life which ultimately don’t include us.  Tyson and Wal-Mart don’t abuse workers because they don’t like us; they abuse workers because they don’t know us.  They can only exhaust labor, town, and resources, because they have no stake in place or people.

Berry’s austere vision requires more of us than Malloch or Stevens.  He demands we take an active role in our place and community.  But his humane, spiritual, and surprisingly conservative vision for humanity’s economic future gives me far more hope than those other authors’ arrogant, self-righteous money cults ever could.


  1. Very well-put. I sincerely believe that Capitalism and Christianity are compatible, but especially the name of "Icahn" evokes negative reactions. My father was a pilot for TWA, and Icahn's name is still occasionally used as a curse in our house.

  2. Congratulations, you just sold a book. I've purchased the Kindle edition of "What Matters?"

  3. It seems like the first two based their theology off of an extremely cursory perusal of the Bible.

    Berry, in contrast, seems to have actually read it.