On Monday, the House of Representatives surprised its leaders, the administration, and, most of all, the financial community by rejecting the agreed — upon financial rescue plan. The bill will be debated again [today].
Two-thirds of all Republicans and two-fifths of all Democrats voted against the plan, with predictable results. The markets tanked around the world. We saw a record 777-point drop in the Dow Jones and the worst one-day loss in the S&P 500 since the 1930s. The market recovered somewhat [Tuesday], but the credit crisis remains.
The explanation of why 228 representatives risked a meltdown in financial markets could be expressed in another set of numbers: Phone calls and emails from their constituents opposed the measure by a 100-to-1 margin.
Now to be sure, some, like my friend Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana, opposed the rescue measure on principle. But many who voted against the bill merely reflected the will of their constituents, who wondered why their money should be used to take other people off the hook.
A very telling poll revealed that 25 percent of those polled favored the measure, 25 percent had no opinion, and the rest opposed it, largely on the grounds that it didn’t affect them or wasn’t their fault. And given what we saw on the television news, for once I believe the polls. The typical man-on-the-street interview went something like this: “The bailout won’t help me! You bet I’m against it.”
Frankly, I was appalled. I can’t help but think that these results illustrate how far we’ve gone down the path of viewing all politics and all of life as “what’s in it for me.”
As many have tried to explain, what is happening on Wall Street affects what happens on Main Street. As I record this, millions of Americans, living far from Manhattan, are measurably poorer as a result of what has been happening in financial markets.
So instead of asking “how is the common good best served?” we look to our own interest, even at the risk of a “decade of little or no economic growth” and a meltdown of the global financial system.
It isn’t only our lack of concern of the common good that disturbs me. It’s also our lack of accountability. I spoke with a very intelligent young banker recently who told me that he encounters it all the time. During his time in risk management, he never heard anybody in foreclosure say, “I made a mistake taking that mortgage. It was too big.”
Instead of acknowledging their accountability — their responsibility to pay the debt — they just shrugged it off, merely mailing the key back to the mortgage holder. Contrast that with a biblical sense of responsibility, of paying your debts.
But this isn’t just about finances. No great civilization has ever been built, or maintained, on the basis “what’s in for me?” That idea cannot demand, much less inspire, the necessary sacrifices to keep a civilization great, or even healthy-there’s nothing to aspire to apart from fleeting self-satisfaction.
As I said, I respect the principled opposition to the rescue plan by some members. But the fate of the economy is hanging in the balance. If the American people can’t look beyond the “me” and see the “we” with this much at stake, then much more than our retirement funds and our bank accounts are at risk.