Wall Street Jitters and Right Living

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Today, Wall Street faces are white with fright ... and, for the moment, life goes on somewhat unabated for most everyone else.

It's like these Americans on tour in Rome — last night they sat, shoulder to shoulder, in the back room of a famed restaurant in the historic district of an historic city, to talk with me. To my surprise, this large group of traveling wine tasters from northeastern Ohio listened attentively and nodded in agreement with almost everything I said.

It wasn’t a particularly religious group, and at first, nor was our conversation. One woman did ask if I thought she could find a mass in the Vatican. Someone else asked about how to get special access to the Papal apartments. Others just talked to me about their hobbies — flying vintage planes, planting vineyards, and seeing the world. “At our age, we realize we had better travel and enjoy things before it’s too late. Last year we went to Slovenia.” On the surface, next year’s destination seemed to be their only concern.

But even off of Wall Street, people like these Americans whooping it up on the streets of Rome, know not everything is OK.

On the second change of plates I moved the group’s attention from small-talk to more sober topics. I tried to test them as I saw them test their wine, attentive to the subtleties. “I’ve got this theory,” I started, “The world is beginning to forget that some things are always wrong and others are always right, wouldn’t you agree?” “Corruption, greed, scandal, we see it at every turn and in every industry, every sector of American life. It’s a general weakening of common sense morality, don’t you think?” “And we better get this right sooner rather than later. The pot seems to be coming to a boil, am I right?”

“Hear, hear!” And so forth.

Then we talked about solutions.

“In the scary landscape of religious and cultural diversity and conflict, human reason, when cultivated with care, can be the great meeting point for the human race, and the launching pad for true faith. If we work together to purify and then to listen to this voice of reason — God’s ordinary mechanism for speaking to us about what’s right and wrong — we may even avoid killing each other. We may be able to pass to our grandchildren a hopeful future. Are you with me?”

“Hear, hear!”

Like in our private lives, when times are good on Wall Street it’s easy to keep our national struggles simmering under the surface of material success. Then something big happens and forces us to confront our devils.

Is something big happening now? There’s a credit crisis in America and it may be reaching the tipping point where bad economic news breaks out of the always topsy-turvy world of financial junkies and into the relative serenity of comfortable homes, like those of wine testers in northeastern Ohio.

Former Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Alan Greenspan has said in an interview to be published today in the Financial Times that we may be entering an economic crisis of proportions not seen in 60 years: “The current financial crisis in the U.S. is likely to be judged in retrospect as the most wrenching since the end of the Second World War." "The crisis will leave many casualties," he continued.

Mr. Greenspan’s warnings were seconded last night by news that JP Morgan Chase & Co. has bought investment bank Bear Stearns, worth $20 billion just a few weeks ago, for a mere $236 million, indicative of an unfathomable meltdown of one of the country’s most venerable institutions. Meanwhile, the Fed is trying to hold off a domino affect in the ailing financial markets by unleashing its arsenal of old and new control mechanisms. Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley will release their quarterly reports later this week and will be a good sign of the depth of the bleeding wounds.

Perhaps like no other area of scientific study, the forces of macro-economics remain a mystery even among its elite. Nobody knows exactly how to control the beast.

Curiously, everyone agrees immaterial factors like trust and confidence in the future play a huge role in determining the present health of the market. Problems arise, however, in that investors can’t always figure out what makes people confident.

I wonder if the financial experts are missing out on the obvious: not everything is OK in America. Until we can trust our neighbor, our boss, our pastor and our politicians, we will always have jitters about our money. Until we can look at one another and know common sense morality is back in vogue, we will never feel quite confident about shaking hands and making a deal. And until we get back in the habit of living within our means, the meltdown in the sub-prime home loan market will be staring us down, reminding us of something every child knows: bubbles always break.

Once again, it seems bad news is teaching us the same old lesson that happiness is somehow tied to right living.

God bless, Father Jonathan
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