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Inside NCR

Why we are writing about money

Readers may have noticed that we’ve been keeping a watchful eye on money. Mostly a jaundiced eye, I’m afraid. We’re not Forbes or Money magazine. These and similar publications generally deal with money for its own sake -- money per se, as we say. We at NCR, less acquainted with large gobs of the stuff, are more concerned with what money does to real life.

Originally a brilliant invention -- it certainly beats huxtering around potatoes or goatskins or shiny beads as mediums of exchange -- money grew in sophistication as well as in its power over our lives until what was meant to be a means became an end in itself. And a tantalizing end it has become, though still useless for the long haul: Well-worn clichés such as “you can’t take it with you” or “shrouds have no pockets” must mock the daily lives of the truly moneyed.

Anyway, variations on money’s manifestations and uses ebbed and flowed for centuries, culminating only recently in the emergence of capitalism. This conquest over all other ways of doing business was all the sweeter for capitalists because it was seen to defeat communism on the side.

I’ve watched it only from a distance, so I find money really hard to fathom. The difference between stocks and bonds, for example, baffles me. But one thing seems clear to me: Capitalism doesn’t work. Sure, it makes some cats very fat. But if you’re not rich, you’re probably a little poor or very poor, meaning that money is not, for you, fulfilling to any satisfactory degree its purpose as a medium of exchange. No money means no potatoes or goatskins, no Mercedes and maybe no bread or clean water or roof over your head.

It’s when you put it in the hands of big corporations, and especially when the latter go international, that capitalism is hardest to fathom. That’s when big-time operators get together with powerful and motivated politicians and they work out ways to make major money, which sort of automatically neuters it as a medium of exchange, which implies give and take. It must worry corporations that soon the rest of us will have given all we’ve got and they will have nothing more to take.

Our story (Making profit the world’s highest law) by Joe Taglieri offers a startling picture of how a very small group of people can dominate, through manipulation of money, vast influence and power, which in turn engenders further money. Not to hurt anyone’s feelings, but this capitalism is, almost by definition, heartless, its sole aim being to maximize profits -- though kind people do at times break the rules by being kind.

The Multilateral Agreement on Investment treaty that Taglieri writes about is devilishly cleverly conceived. It would place not only individual citizens the world over but also national governments at the service of big capitalists. Notice the clever use of the word “nondiscrimination.” Who could be against nondiscrimination? Read on.

As anyone can easily see, this manipulation of so many human destinies gets me all hot and bothered.

There’s yet another wrinkle. Because most humans still suffer from conscience or other niggling sensibilities, moral ballast must be brought to bear on such lucrative schemes. Religion has, throughout history, both placed moral restraints on greed and covered its behind when compliant apologists were brought aboard. Now that fewer folks believe in really cogent restraints such as hell, ethics is scrambling to get traction from old-fashioned decency and generosity.

Apologists for capitalism are thus invaluable. NCR’s John Allen was, not so long ago, researching a Unocal pipeline project in Burma where a notoriously repressive regime is in bed with big business at the expense of its own citizens. When Allen raised the dread morality question, the vice president for corporate relations at Unocal responded with relief: Let me send you Michael Novak’s Business as a Calling. And he did, overnight.

Novak, no doubt a decent, thoughtful man, surely must have given his book much deep thought. He surely must want what is best for everyone, the poor as well as the rich. He’s also a smart man, though, and can’t help being aware that he’s being used to promote the excesses -- as well as the many admittedly worthy benefits -- of capitalism. Some of the chapter headings of Business as a Calling read almost, in this context, like a Steve Martin skit: “Capitalism Is Better for the Poor,” “Capitalism Reduces Envy” and “Don’t Forget the Fun of It!” (the “it,” as far as I can figure, is business).

The present pope is less ardent about capitalism. Its materialistic, consumeristic core is hard to defend in an era as enlightened as ours. The pope’s sentiments -- which seem also to have been the sentiments of Jesus of Nazareth -- are trickling down. Last week’s article by Dennis Coday described church members in suffering Asia taking an unblinking look at the depredations committed by international financial institutions.

All this is an area in which we at NCR are not as hip as the money men and women. Still, we will do our best to monitor the phenomenon of money, which is so central to the way nearly all humans relate to one another.

The first few reactions to our redesign are in. A mixed bag. The picture, so to speak, is complicated by the fact that, through circumstances beyond our control, the National Catholic Reporter in our masthead is in black for a few weeks before coming up a beautiful blue. We’re not doing this to tantalize you. Really! And, to further test your mettle, the date was missing from last week’s front page. Again, circumstances beyond our control. Look at the bright side: If you preserve your copy, it could eventually be a collector’s item. Please be kind. We’re a work in progress.

National Catholic Reporter, October 9, 1998