Long Live Gravity

The health insurance giant Humana may be part of the problem when it comes to health-care reform. In fact, in Michael Moore’s film Sicko, Humana is indicted for murder by denial of payment. But still we can be grateful for this: Every year Humana lays out big bucks for a festival of original plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky.

And, as if to prove Lenin’s proverb about capitalists selling you the rope with which to hang them, the highlight of this year’s Humana Festival was Wild Blessings: A Celebration of Wendell Berry. In that production dozens of our local hero’s poems are recited and sung, including the one, written years ago, that goes: “When I hear the stock market has fallen, I say, ‘Long live gravity! Long live stupidity, error, and greed in the palaces of fantasy capitalism!’”

Gravity is a natural force that can’t be outsmarted by even the wiliest humans. To think otherwise is pure fantasy. We think we have gravity licked when we soar across continents in jet airplanes. But stay up there long enough, and gravity will win. The same goes for all those brilliant financiers who were so sure that house prices would keep going up forever. They believed their own fantasy, and gravity did the rest.

“Fantasy” is the only appropriate term for a belief that natural forces can be overcome by human intelligence. That faith in “intelligence” may be at the root of our current economic problems (and some others, too). Several years ago, there was a movie called Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Kenneth Lay and company really believed that the smartest people from the best schools could create a trading market in the “commodity” of electric current. That intellectual adventure ended with the lights going out in deregulated California.

The Enron scandal brought lots of new regulation of corporate bookkeeping. But it did nothing to slow the process of concocting imaginary investment “products.” Instead, a few years later, the smartest people on earth concocted a fantasy empire based on the brilliant idea of investing in other people’s debt. The great thing about debt as a commodity is that unlike, say, topsoil or petroleum, you can always create more of it—hence the subprime mortgage and the notorious “liar’s loan.”

Since seeing the Wendell Berry play, I’ve also been reading a book of essays called Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky, 2007). In that volume, a piece by Jeremy Beer has the daunting title, “Wendell Berry and the Traditionalist Critique of Meritocracy.” Beer’s thesis, which he finds supported by Berry, is that meritocracy, the system in which the smartest people with the highest test scores run things, has given us a ruling class of jet-setting thinkers and talkers that is divorced from any particular place and has no contact with the physical world of manual labor and the actual production of goods.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s economic policy team is meritocracy in motion. That’s why they are so anxious to keep the smart guys who understand the system in place at the various financial institutions and to rationalize the derivatives trading market instead of simply abolishing it.

At this point I would gladly trade a jet-load of Timothy Geithners for one small-town banker who understands that the purpose of finance is to help people make useful things. As Berry put it in his poem, “I think an economy should be based on thrift, on taking care of things, not on theft, usury, seduction, waste, and ruin.”

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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