Paul Prather

Original sin shapes money morass

We're in the midst of the worst economic meltdown since the 1930s.

For weeks, I've been reading everything I can find on the subject, while simultaneously watching my IRA take daily swan dives off the Brooklyn Bridge.

In all my scouring of newspapers, magazines and online financial sites, I haven't found anyone who's saying what seems to me obvious: this debacle is a spiritual issue.

Whether our current situation turns out to be a recession, a depression or a worldwide collapse, it's largely the result of our political and economic leaders having distorted for years a basic biblical, Christian and just plain commonsensical premise.

That premise is: Human beings are nuts.

It's what used to be called original sin. Prather's Idiosyncratic Dictionary of Theological Terms defines "original sin" as, "The inviolable law which tells us that every person born on earth is, from the cradle onward, messed up."

Nowhere is this truism truer than in its application to our uses of money.

Not every person is prone to mishandle money; some people are quite responsible with it. (They're messed up in other ways.)

But you don't have to be religious to see that many people, great and small, if left to their own devices with a wad of cash, will lose their minds and their morals.

Our leaders seem not to have any problem recognizing this as it applies to the poor. They're less willing to apply it to the middle class, though, and when it comes to the rich, they think it doesn't apply at all. But it does apply to the rich. It applies to people of all stations because they're people.

In the 1990s, Congress set about to reform welfare programs. Americans were torqued up because the poor, they felt, were abusing the system — claiming disability even though they were able-bodied, birthing a half-dozen kids out of wedlock, selling their food stamps to buy drugs.

I've dealt with scores of poor folks. I'm here to tell you the majority of them are honest, decent people who have suffered some bad licks and are trying their best. I'd trust some of them with my own car, house or wallet.

Nevertheless, a lot of the sentiment for welfare reform was based in facts.

There are a sizeable number of poor Americans — one in three, I'd speculate, or one in four — who aren't honest or decent at all. Turn your back to them and they'll steal the tags off your underwear. They're crooks, liars and slugs.

I'm not saying this to be mean-spirited. I'm saying it because I've witnessed it.

Because of that crooked fraction, the government has to watch closely those to whom it gives money and services. It must impose rules and enforce the rules strictly.

Paradoxically, many of the same politicians who were the most adamant about cracking down on the poor have for 30 years done everything in their power to remove all restrictions from the rich. Our economic disaster is a plainly foreseeable result of an ill-considered, long-term, bipartisan deregulation of the marketplace.

To cite one example, the government dismantled the Glass-Steagall Act, legislated long ago to control the kinds of wild financial speculation that caused the Great Depression—and that have now, in Glass-Steagall's absence, led to a similar disaster.

As the owner of a small real estate business, I'm certainly against socialism, against over-reaching governmental interference. But anyone with one eye and half sense knows the momentum has swung way, way too far in the other direction.

An underlying assumption of deregulation, although it's never quite stated this way, is that the rich, if loosed from constraints, can be trusted to act responsibly with billions of dollars.

No they can't. Obviously they can't. They're original sinners, too.

Remove the rules from a Wall Street brainiac and he's as likely to go berserk as a high-school dropout who hits a $2 million lottery ticket.

The difference is, if a dropout wastes his winnings, he mainly pays for his stupidity himself. When Wall Street speculators squander mega-fortunes, you and I pay their debts. Some $700 billion worth and counting.

Finally, I don't trust the middle class any more than I do the rich or poor. It was middle-class folks who applied for all those sub-prime loans. They mortgaged themselves into bankruptcy on houses they couldn't afford, just because the money was available. We're paying for their greed and irresponsibility, too.

The bottom line about the bottom line is, we're all human, whether we're rich, poor or middle class. And for that very reason, we must have reasonable rules imposed on us, to keep us honest, to protect our neighbors and to protect us from ourselves.

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