Did we all get too greedy?

This week’s Washington Letter takes a look at some of the parallels between earlier economic depressions and today’s financial upheaval.

One often cited concern that led us into this mess is the drive to produce ever increasing income which leads to higher profits, at least on paper. Fueled by a booming housing market and relaxed regulations governing many types of financial activity, incomes grew meteorically.

The quest for more revenue became almost addictive in the era of growing real estate values, which those in the industry said would continue upward for years to come. Although different industries were involved, it’s a similar story that existed prior to the nation’s two most serious economic crises: the panic of 1873 and the Great Depression.

One key factor in the economic decline has been the increased concentration of wealth where the top 1 percent of the U.S. population garnered higher shares of the country’s wealth. It’s what Douglas Astolfi, professor history at St. Leo University, calls “incredible greed.”

But another expert contacted by Catholic News Service suggests one additional segment of American society contributed to our current economic woes: us.

Joan Junkus, associate professor of finance at DePaul University, said the consuming habits of just about everyone helped build debt that many could not afford to pay back. With more defaulting on debt payments, banks and financial institutions got sick.

 Junkus encouraged Americans to step back and look at their lifestyle and ask why they desire to consume more and more.

“I think the conversation for everyone should be more of ‘did we go too far being greedy?’ Ourselves included. In an election year, people want to point the finger at someone. People have a huge amount of (financial) leverage in their own lives that we used to not have.

“Credit cards and home equity loans are part of this. You have this problem where people are leveraging themselves. And why? They’re not doing it to start a business or invest. They’re trying to support a lifestyle.

“(Our debt accumulation) is not so my children have a better life. It’s ‘I really deserve it.’ I think we have to talk about other things in life than consuming.”

Enough said.

CNS Bible Blog: Sibling rivalry and reconciliation

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The stories recounted throughout Genesis are all about relationships: God and humanity, husband and wife, parent and child, and brothers –- many brothers. It’s interesting to notice the movement from the first set of siblings to those at the end of Genesis. We move from the most violent at the beginning to reconciliation at the conclusion.

First, Cain kills his brother Abel. A son of Noah acts with disrespect to his father in front of his brothers. Ishmael and Isaac become permanently separated (but I like the touch where both of them come together to bury their father Abraham, Gen 25:9). Jacob and Esau compete to the point of threatening death, but become almost reconciled.

Michael Kolarcik SJ

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

Finally at the end, covering Chapters 37-50, longer than any other family story in Genesis, the story of Joseph and his eleven brothers is mostly about seeking reconciliation.

All because of a special place that Joseph had in his father’s heart, tremendous jealousy swelled up in the older brothers. Joseph received a special tunic from their father and he did not wear the special status well before his brothers or before his parents. The conflict in this family is one each generation must face. How do you treat those who are your equal but more gifted? How do you treat your equals who are less gifted than you? Joseph at seventeen does not yet know how to use the gifts he is given for the service of others. The brothers do not know how to recognize and foster the gifts in their younger brother.

The conflict reached a breaking point. The brothers stripped Joseph of his special tunic, threw him in a pit, sold him to a caravan heading to Egypt and returned the blood-smeared tunic to their father. “Here is a bloodied tunic, see if it is that of your son!”

Lost to his family, Joseph goes through test after test until he emerges as one who has learned to use his gifts for the benefit of others. For this reason he was placed in charge of Pharaoh’s government.

The story might have ended here except that we want to know how these brothers will act if they have to face each other once again. Sure enough, Jacob sends his 10 sons to Egypt in search of food during a famine while keeping the youngest son Benjamin at home. Joseph, who is not recognized by his brothers, forces them to undergo a trial to see whether they too have learned in their lives to care for those weaker than they.

Just as Joseph had undergone two tests (in the pit at the hands of his brothers and in the dungeon at the hand of Potiphar’s wife) so too do the brothers undergo two tests, first with Simeon then with Benjamin. Judah emerges as the one who offers himself to save the life of his youngest brother.

With this sacrifice, Joseph can contain himself no longer and reveals his identity to his brothers with great weeping and joy. As he sends them off to bring their families and their father Jacob to Egypt, Joseph gives to each brother a set of clothing. He gives to them that which they had long ago stripped from him.

The gift of clothing to each and five sets to his brother Benjamin, points to the concrete way Joseph wants to assure his brothers that they are all reconciled once and for all. But it is not easy. In the end, it will be the brothers who finally clothe Joseph after he dies in the clothing of embalmment with the promise to bring his bones back to the promised land.