Saturday, 9 October 2010

'Profit vs Prophet' - Mannie Sher

Biblical prophets preached at a time when their societies were agrarian and their times were harsh and under threat from warring neighbours.  But for the Prophet Micah, one of the minor prophets who lived in the 8th Century Before the Common Era, it was a time that witnessed the emergence of a commercial civilization of great material prosperity.  Its foundations were laid in the peace and security established under Jeroboam II and Uzziah during their long reigns and in the extension of the borders of their kingdoms, giving the Hebrew States command of all the main trade routes.  But it was a civilization which displayed all the problems of a society making haste to be rich – greed and covetousness, reckless and unscrupulous competition and a pitiless disregard of the claims of sympathy, charity and brotherly consideration. 

Extremes of wealth and poverty, which had been impossible in an agricultural society based on the Biblical system of land tenure, were dividing the nation into classes of possessors and dispossessed.  The rich built up large estates and with the help of corrupt judges added house to house and field to field while the oppressed and dispossessed peasantry sought in vain for legal redress.  The pursuit of commerce encouraged the development of cities to which the landless farmers migrated in search of a livelihood, where wealth, luxury and vice dwelt side by side with poverty, misery and squalor.  With the exchange of goods went the exchange of ideas.  New age cults, pornography, standards of luxury and splendor and materialistic aims of living which hitherto had been foreign were introduced.

Against this moral and social background Micah received the call to prophecy.  Himself a countryman, he felt the deepest sympathy with the misery and destitution to which the rapaciousness of the rich and powerful had reduced the masses; but he also saw clearly that a society built on tyranny, corruption and false standards of wealth was a society doomed to destruction.  Micah fearlessly denounced the demoralizing pursuit of wealth which he considered the opposite of the demands of righteousness.  He inveighs against the seizure of houses and estates, the expropriation of peasants, the cruel use of the rights of creditors, the corruption of rulers and judges, the venality of priests and prophets who lived by the flattery of the rich.  He attacks the utterly mistaken conception that no harm can befall the rich; he announces in unequivocal terms the inevitable consequences of the corruption of his society – defeat and exile.  And over against the injustice, cruelty and luxurious ostentation of his age, he states in simple terms the essence of God’s demands: Justice, Mercy and Modesty.

It has been said that Micah combines in his character the ethical fervour of Amos and the compassion and love of Hosea.  His denunciations of injustice and oppression were as fierce and categorical as any in Hebrew prophecy, his threats as absolute and unconditional.  And since those whom he denounced were the rich, the powerful and the privileged, one marvels at his courage and his fearlessness.  They writhed under his verbal lashings; they called on him to cease his prophesying, but they must have recognised that his prophesying came from on High and they did not harm him. 

Here is what Micah says in Chapter 3; Verses 9-12
Hear this, you leaders of the house of Jacob, you rulers of the house of Israel, who despise justice and distort all that is right;
Who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with wickedness.

Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they lean upon the LORD and say, "Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come upon us."

Therefore because of you, Zion will be ploughed like a field; Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.
Jeremiah 6:13 – 15
For from the least of them even unto the greatest of them every one is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely.

They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.

Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? Nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: therefore they shall fall among them that fall: at the time that I visit them they shall be cast down, saith the LORD.

Ezekiel 22:25 – 28
There is a conspiracy of her prophets in the midst thereof, like a roaring lion ravening the prey; they have devoured souls; they have taken the treasure and precious things; they have made her many widows in the midst thereof.

Her priests have violated my law, and have profaned my holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they showed difference between the unclean and the clean, and have hidden their eyes from my Sabbaths, and I am profaned among them.

Her princes in the midst thereof are like wolves ravening the prey, to shed blood, and to destroy souls, to get dishonest gain.

And her prophets have daubed them with untempered mortar, seeing vanity, and divining lies unto them, saying, Thus saith the Lord GOD, when the LORD hath not spoken.

Isaiah 42:22
But this is a people robbed and spoiled,
They are all of them snared in holes,
And they are hidden in prison houses;
They are for a prey, and none delivereth,
For a spoil, and none saith: “Restore.”

This is a description of the pitiable plight of the people, the homelessness and bondage (bankruptcy).  The people’s insensibilities and lack of understanding are rebuked.  The disasters Isaiah says are the result of lack of moral discipline leading to the deliverance of a chastened people.

So what about profits?  Are the Prophets against profits?  No, they are against excessive profits, unequal profits, profits without moral justice.  Profits are meant to be put to social and economic use, not feed the greedy parts of our natures.

Even in early agrarian society it was understood that production was not meant only for immediate consumption; a proportion had to be left over and saved for the next year's planting.

How much is enough?

It is a generally accepted principle that the proportions of the selling price of products or services divide into thirds - one-third covers direct costs; one-third covers indirect costs; one-third is meant to be profit for future investment (seed corn)

Profit and Prophecy are linked to ideas about future time.  Work processes are geared to time – it is essential to calculate the amount of time required to complete a task and if possible to shorten it; in prophecy too, time is calculated for the present downward spiraling of moral and unjust behaviour and a future state of affairs of contrition, retribution and redemption.  For unrestrained profiteers, the constraints and limitations of time do not seem to apply – their behaviour suggests that for them time is focussed on the now - it all has to happen immediately and forever – the unbridled escalation of value and wealth, supporting a rags to riches fantasy.

For example, the “Double or quits” proposition of gambling supports phantasies of unlimited wealth for no effort - greed is what we call it - having it all - supporting a phantasy of I am the greatest - I am king of the castle – I am capable of creating my own personal invulnerable universe.   These dynamics are characteristic of big multi-national corporations where the corruption of the idea of greed is common, e.g. media stories of Enron, Worldcorp (in the USA), Parmalat (in Italy), and HIH (in Australia), often focus on what seems to be the intent of senior executives to have huge salaries, plus shares, and other financial interests in the company and its future.   Stories of lies, fraud and cover-up, where the company’s true financial status is hidden from the market, confirm our cynicism about big business being a potential breeding ground for greedy and exploitive executives and board members.

Our title is prophet/profit.  That brings to my mind another pair of words with an “f” and “ph” usage - fantasy/phantasy.  Fantasy with an “f” refers to a paraphrasing of conscious imagination – the things we can conjure up in our minds; phantasy with a “ph” is located firmly in the inner unconscious world of the psyche in which all sensations and perceptions are interpreted and represented under the influence of the pleasure-pain principle.  We all have feelings about money – about wanting more of it (pleasure) or fearing not having enough of it (pain).  But money is primarily a means of sustaining reciprocal relationships. Reciprocity is the key because it maintains social relationships – it is not wealth for its own sake.  No exchange is ever equal. All exchanges are unequal.   It all depends on what can be tolerated to maintain good reciprocal feelings.  Usually an imbalance in the order of 60-40 is tolerable.  Anything beyond that begins to feel uncomfortable and ultimately socially and politically unacceptable.

What feelings does it evoke?

In a piece of research I conducted this year with a colleague, Alison Gill, we attempted to assess the thinking of the people who look after our money - senior bankers - about the financial and banking issues they were involved with on a daily basis.  In conversations with us, our respondents appeared to confirm a view that they inhabit a bubble in which they talk only about their investments.  Day-to-day dialogue revolved around investment opportunities.  We heard how investment decisions were made solely on ‘how much this has gone up in the past’, not ‘what is this worth?  Greed had overcome fear.  They focused exclusively on the upside and ignored the downside.  Prudent risk assessment stopped.  They were disconnected from the true value of what they were selling.  Their organisations were over-leveraged and investment bankers borrowed whatever they could.  Huge mortgages, often as much as 125% the value of the property, or 6 or 7 times earnings, spoke of a system drunk on debt.   In the complexity of a financial system driving debt, innovation in finance meant intelligent individuals, who should have known better, were maximising returns primarily to satisfy shareholders and some banks were borrowing as much as forty to fifty times their capital base.  Being caught in the cross-fire of high leverage was the only means of keeping up with other banks.  To be sure, most of our respondents struggle to understand the global, social and systemic nature of the financial crisis, but they seldom came up with anything better than headline catch phrases like ‘trust’, ‘behaviours’, ‘relationships’, ‘inter-dependence’ but they could not go further to help them really understand what had happened to their industry, nor lead them to effective solutions.  Despite their many words, and they were articulate, to us they seemed lost.  For many of them, it seemed their distress was about their careers ending on a note of appalling indignity, some even facing the prospect of criminal charges; they appeared to be saying that they could not believe that they had been found wanting, caught out by such a catastrophic failure. They seemed unsure how to judge their own part in the failure; unsure as to whether their failure should be judged as personal rather than systemic. To what extent did they understand their roles in choices they made and their accountabilities that could have prevented the failure?  They had become unconscious players in the dramas of the groups to which they belonged.

Our respondents stressed the importance of collaboration and interdependence as the most viable way forward for government and society, but on the whole they seemed unable to consider that rivalry, envy, fear, greed, competition and conflict - the dark side of human functioning - had played a significant role in the financial meltdown, and how ignorant they really were of human psychological, systemic and ecological systems and complex, large and impersonal organisations. The balance between the positive forces of optimism, humanitarianism and hope and the negative forces of competition, rivalry, envy and greed had been distorted to such an extent that they had actually been re-defined and glossed over as all positive in their own right.  (Greed is good) Little regard was given to how the forces of irrationality had inverted the meaning of language and had distorted and perverted reality.

So, is it all about making money or making a difference?  On balance I think I am more on the side of the Prophets than on the side of the profiteers.  But we have to strive for a middle way.  Of course, with no profits there would be no commerce and we would have to revert to a barter-type economy and that is unthinkable, although that almost happened in September 2007 when the ATMs nearly stopped issuing notes.  Maybe, with more education and training, everyone involved in the money business will come to understand that money is more than the value of the things it buys – it is a medium that serves as a receptacle for our fantasies with an “f” and our phantasies with a “ph” and that unless we understand the feelings and dynamics of money, we will always be heading for the next crisis in unending cycles of growth and bust.  What I am saying here is we will always need both our Prophets and our profiteers – the challenge is not whether they will be one versus the other, but whether we, as individual consumers or corporate market-makers, can acquire sufficient wisdom, humility, moral integrity and care alongside our intelligent, gifted and quick-witted economic and financial selves.

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