The Common Good
December 2008

It's All His Fault

by Ed Spivey Jr. | December 2008

The following is an excerpt from economic philosopher Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations treatise, one of the driving intellectual forces behind contemporary market theory.

The following is an excerpt from economic philosopher Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations treatise, one of the driving intellectual forces behind contemporary market theory. Smith has been dead for a couple hundred years and can’t defend himself, so financial experts are blaming him for the United States running out of commas to put between the zeroes of our fiscal mess. Unfortunately, we can’t blame the real perpetrators because they are busy overseeing construction of their new mansions in the Hamptons, thus unavailable to reassure us that they’re fine, and we shouldn’t worry.

“Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it; he intends only his own security; and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it ....”

Okay, dude, whatever.

Enough of Adam Smith. I thought it would be helpful to the discussion, but I started getting college flashbacks and then remembered I still owe a research paper to my psychology professor. It was due 35 years ago, but I’m happy to report that it’s nearly finished. Just as soon as I fill out the bibliography with a couple of encyclopedia references.

Suffice it to say that financial experts agree that Adam Smith would be unbelievably tedious at a dorm party, unless he brought the keg. (“Another tankard of stout ale, my good friends?”)

NOW THAT CAPITALISM itself is being questioned and long-held financial truths are falling by the wayside—such as the law of supply and demand, which apparently only works until the credit card company calls from India and asks why your minimum payment got lost in the mail again—Americans are fearing a complete economic meltdown, something Adam Smith didn’t anticipate. Although, to be fair, there was no indoor plumbing at the time, and in the winter this would be very distracting to economic philosophers. They’d tend to lose focus.

The most-quoted part of Adam Smith’s treatise is his reference to “the invisible hand” of the economy, the unseen force whereby an individual’s labor contributes to the common good. (Anybody not thinking of Donald Trump right now and tearing up a little?) But it turns out the invisible force in question is actually Henry Paulson’s invisible friend, Bob, who wants him to hurry up and solve the fiscal crisis so they can go home and watch television together.

Some experts believe Treasury Secretary Paulson wanted to personally control the $700 billion bailout so he could secretly pay for a giant rocket ship that would one day take him into deep space, where he would spend the rest of his days pleasantly alone, playing chess—“HAH! Your king is TOAST, Bob!”—and finishing a quilt he’s been putting off for months.

But for now he’s trying to calm fears and empathize with the rest of us. “The American people are angry about excessive executive compensation, and rightfully so,” the secretary recently said. And he should know, since his net worth of $600 million came from excessive executive compensation when he was head of Goldman Sachs. On the plus side, he can afford to pay the $2,295 that is the cost of the bailout to every man, woman, and child in America. (Note to my daughters: You’re not children anymore, so this is not coming out of MY pocket. And by the way, I changed my mind about you marrying investment bankers. I’m now thinking waste management has better potential. There’s nothing like a man in uniform.)

In the meantime, Americans need to keep a balanced portfolio of investments: Keep some treasure in heaven and some here on earth. And what better place for your earthly treasures than under Mattress Discounters’ new queen-size, rollover MRA—Mattress Retirement Account. It’s in the comfort of your own home, you can roll over any time you want—without the paperwork—and it’s completely safe because, really, who’s going to look under a mattress for money? It’s like sleeping on your own ATM. If your ATM had “memory foam.”

SOME SAY THERE is nothing the average American can do in response to the coming depression. On the contrary, there is much we can do: We can hyperventilate, we can wet ourselves, we can turn around in circles shaking our hands in pathetic waves of powerlessness, we can experience anxiety attacks that require lengthy hospital stays. And we can projectile vomit in disgust when political conservatives blame the crisis on the Carter administration. Aim well.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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