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Still Deadly


I was listening to a BBC program this afternoon that was focusing on the financial crisis. One aspect of the program was discussing the moral and spiritual underpinnings of the crisis. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of focus on greed and the need for individuals in the financial sector to reflect on their motivations and values.My own reflections on the crisis, however, have led me to the conclusion that we need to focus more on a different deadly sin: pride. I'm not sure that the financiers who got us into this mess were significantly greedier than those who came before them. I do think, though, that they were significantly more confident that "financial engineering" had rendered obsolete many traditional assumptions about financial risk.There are parallels, of course, to the conduct of the Iraq War. A close reading of many of the books on the war reveals that a key reason things went so badly was a confidence among the war planners-particularly the civilians in the highest reaches of the DoD-that a "revolution in military affairs" had upended previous models of war planning.After eight years of an administration where the refusal to face hard facts was treated as a virtue, it's tempting to believe that these kinds of problems are the result of ideology or self-interest trumping evidence. Those things certainly played an important role. Equally important, though, was a strong faith in the ability of human beings to gain mastery over the eddies and currents of history. That's not merely a bipartisan belief. It's an American one. It's one that our new President-elect once powerfully and pithily summarized: "Yes we can!"If Christians bring something unique to the public square, it is less a set of policy prescriptions than a set of convictions about what Reinhold Neibuhr once called "the nature and destiny of man." An anthropology shaped by the biblical narrative should lead us to be skeptical of policies and proposals that depend too heavily on the goodness and wisdom of human beings. In some cases, this may demand that we stand up and say: "No we can't."I won't deny that Christians are called to something more than anthropological pessimism. Nevertheless, it remains our task to remind the world that wars get out of control, that markets do not always self-regulate, that regulators are not omniscient, that the architecture of creation imposes limits, that we cannot always be trusted with power over life and death, and that, sometimes, God's response to man's "yes" is "no."

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What is most disturbing is not so much the known warmongers who think that might makes right and that you don't have to love us as long as you fear us. Most troubling is the reality that many credible Christians (not theocons and neocons) believed the Iraq war and, to add insult to injury, that controlling the oil was not necessarily a bad thing since why should Sadaam have power of it. Lastly, the way many Christians came to this conclusion is bothersome also.To get others on board who otherwise would be averse to bellicose behavior, many think tanks are engaged to develop papers on how good an idea it is for Middle East or Asian strategy to make a regime change in Iraq. Same is true for the financial field. Just as we have to be wary of gurus, Buddhas and priests, same is true of experts who are usually paid to say what they apparently have dutifully researched. One word that stuck out as a child, hearing my mother repeat it over and over was the word "propaganda." It means something like if you keep repeating it often enough, many will accept it as a fact. This kind of lying (propaganda) took place recently when America and Israel agreed to stop arms from coming to Hamas. Now that takes care of the problem. And there will be a think tank backing that up. The same propaganda insists that American Catholics are going conservative and prefer the Tridentine Mass.

Re: the financial meltdown. Perhaps this overweening sense of confidence came not so much from the human ability to manipulate these financial devices, but confidence that computer models had solved the problem of human limits in calculating the risk. The fellow from Indiana who helped develop these models warned the SEC some years ago that care should be taken in depending on them. The SEC didn't listen.

J. Peter Nixon,I think it is at best mistaken, and more likely perverse, to associate Barack Obama's "Yes we can!" with the kind of pride you are talking about.

I tend to blame the power of inventiveness liberally mixed with greed, an unhappy partnership furthered by shortsightedness and feeding on pervasive gullibility. Still, uncritical distrust is hardly a virtue. We have a duty to do better rather than to do nothing. We have at hand many useful tools. It is a question of using them wisely.

I wont deny that Christians are called to something more than anthropological pessimism. Nevertheless, it remains our task to remind the world that wars get out of control, that markets do not always self-regulate, that regulators are not omniscient, that the architecture of creation imposes limits, that we cannot always be trusted with power over life and death, and that, sometimes, Gods response to mans yes is no.This argument, though having some merit, is a two-edged sword. Those who want stringent government regulation of how American workers spend their money (higher taxes, onerous environmental restrictions, politically-correct speech policies, etc.) could suffert that same overweening pride in thinking that the "experts" will know how to get us on the right path.

Ooops! The italics and bold httl got out of control. That first paragraph was the last paragraph of Peter's post. Sorry.