The National Catholic Review

Who knew that John McCain was his own stuntman? What else to call his decision to "suspend" his campaign and fly back to Washington to help solve the economic crisis. Was McCain earnest about the importance of being back in the Senate or was he merely confused about the word order of the Oscar Wilde play?

McCain has admitted to no special expertise in complex economic matters, despite chairing the Commerce Committee of the Senate for many years. Nor do complex legislative negotiations necessarily benefit from having "mavericks" involved. Nor did any of the lead congressional or administration negotiators – not Treasury Secretary Paulson nor Congressman Barney Frank nor Senator Dodd – call for McCain’s help. The negotiations, by all reports, were proceeding well when John McCain decided he was needed. Rep. Frank, the funniest as well as one of the smartest members of Congress, was having none of it: "We’re trying to rescue the economy, not the McCain campaign."

If McCain’s polls numbers had been on the upswing, his move might have been seen as disinterested. Instead, it looks like a ploy, a gimmick, a stunt. You have to be careful with such stunts. Yesterday afternoon, it looked like the McCain camp had beaten Obama to a bipartisan punch, that he had outwitted his opponent, and changed what had been a bad storyline. But, precisely because his move was seen as political in nature, it is doubtful that he will gain much from his intervention except the wrath of some in the GOP base who have rebelled against the President’s proposals. Complex economic realities will not be solved by the heroic intervention of anyone, least of all when there is not much heroism in the act. McCain did not look presidential yesterday. He looked frantic to change his poll numbers. Stunts will not change anything.

Principles, on the other hand, are especially important in a time of crisis. Part of the economic crisis is complicated and financial. Part of it is moral. In 1981, Pope John Paul II issued his first (and favorite) encyclical on social justice, Laborem Exercens. "[T]he error of early capitalism can be repeated wherever man is in a way treated on the same level as the whole complex of the material means of production, as an instrument and not in accordance with the true dignity of his work-that is to say, where he is not treated as subject and maker, and for this very reason as the true purpose of the whole process of production."(Chapter 7) The Pope’s highly philosophic words are not the stuff of a 30-second campaign spot, but Barack Obama would do well to consult, and repeat, the distinction that Pope John Paul II made in homier words: the human person is not a means, or a thing, or a worker-bee, or a cog in someone else’s economic wheel.

Part of the horror of the current crisis is that some Wall Street companies clearly did not give a hoot about the average investor or the average homeowner. The average person who invested with Lehman Brothers could not be expected to know how to value these "financial instruments" that bundled bad mortgages and sold them at inflated costs to unsuspecting buyers. Indeed, one of the most difficult problems still on the negotiators’ table is the question of how to assess the value of these mortgage-backed securities. But, the captains of high finance did not care. They did not care if the homeowner was offered a loan they could not afford. They did not care if the bundling of these mortgages on the belief that housing prices would go up forever bore a frightening resemblance to a ponzi scheme. They saw the chance for a quick profit, and they took it. The average investor was a means to their end.

Obama does not need to embrace Catholic social teaching about the economy, but he needs to speak to the moral aspect of the economic crisis. The crisis is rooted in the fact that Wall Street forgot that the money at issue was not just a dollar figure on a balance sheet but the life savings of a human person, a grandmother who had earned her retirement or a married couple trying to put money away for their child’s college education.  

In the 1930s, Msgr. John A. Ryan denounced the "economic dictatorship" that controlled Wall Street. His attacks were echoed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt who spoke forcefully against "economic tyranny" and argued that "the collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it." In doing his debate prep, Obama would do well to consult the words of FDR who so effectively channeled both progressive and Catholic beliefs about social justice.

Michael Sean Winters

Comments

Anonymous | 9/26/2008 - 4:23pm
Time will tell what McCain's actions did or didn't do, or if he was instrumental in protecting average American taxpayers from an out of control government. At this time, Friday afternoon, we don't know what will come about, but my hope is that the Republicans in Congress will forge a bill that forces Wall Street to borrow the cash they need to fix their own problems and that the capital gains tax is suspended for at least a time. The vast majority of Americans are paying their mortgages at this time, let the banks deal with those who default... that's business. If McCain has any involvement in that outcome I'll gratefully reward him. Interestingly, the author didn't mention Obama's opinion of this bail out, and exposes a bias that makes me wonder about the sincerity and honesty of the rest of the opinion. I'm betting that when the final vote comes, Obama will not be there to take a stand, but he will blather on about the moral crisis.
Anonymous | 9/26/2008 - 3:49pm
I must object to Mr.Winters characterization of Sen. McCain as a stuntman. I certainly, am not an expert on Economic matters either, BUT, I do know this, I would accompany the Senator anywhere that the "foxes" were planning to take over the "hen-house" so that I could put a "STOP to it. Senator Dodd and the other "fox", Barney Frank, objected by VOTE to Senator McCain's proposal in 2005 to reign-in the activities of Fannie May and Freddie Mac ,both of whom have abused the trust of investors and now have the 'Gall" to ask the taxpayer to bail them out. James McPhillips
Anonymous | 9/26/2008 - 5:29pm
How quick we rush to judgement in determining Sen. McCain's motives to return to Washington. A ''stunt''? Perhaps. A sense of responsibility? Perhaps. Sen. McCain is a lot of things to a lot of people, but I doubt that anyone can fail to call him an honorable man, and honorable men prioritize their duties. Sen. McCain's trip produced nothing of value, but neither has the continued presence of Rep. Frank and Sen. Dodd, both of whom are seizing the chance to posture in front of the cameras rather than trying to solve the crisis. And Sen. Obama feels it more important to avoid the fray than sully his image as Mr. Clean, a man of ''change''. He apparently has forgotten that although he is a Presidential candidate, he still has a day job in the U.S. Senate. Neither Senators McCain nor Obama are economic experts. But how can Sen. Obama reflect on the moral aspect of the crisis and not at least make an effort ot solve it? Or is this problem ''above his pay grade'' like his answer to the question of when life begins?
Anonymous | 9/26/2008 - 2:56pm
Michael you fail to mention that the Democratic Party insisted that Barack Obama, the great community organizer, chair the meeting at the White House on behalf of Congressional Democrats and it was a failure. The great community organizer could not even unite people and run a meeting of high level officials. You are getting your talking points from the DNC and they are not true. John McCain is not the problem, but part of the solution. As for Barney Frank, you fail to mention his role in the problems we now face. Frank's insistence that people who could not afford mortgages be given them is certainly not the entire problem but a good reason for the mess we are in now. Milbo
Anonymous | 9/25/2008 - 4:10pm
Well said! McCain's stunt shows opportunism -- nothing more. And all of the posturing about "greed" only makes the preachers happy! However, we sadly have been gutted in the American Church of the courage and wisom of the Monsignor Ryan's! The hierarchs have hardly known how to talk about this since many are beholding to Wall Street themselves for their slowly bankrupting dioceses. Abortion is much easier for them to address! Obama might address the economy as a moral crisis but only if he can do it without completely moralizing! Howver, it will be hard for the episcopacy to call for "checks and balances" when they have been so reluctant to accept those from the faithful or even other experts if Ann Burke (former member of sexual abuse oversight commisssion -- whatever its title) is to be believed. Let us all medidate on Micah 2... and start holding our legislators -- and dare I say our bishops and diocesan finance committees -- much more accountable.
Anonymous | 9/25/2008 - 3:46pm
There are people whose desire for money can never be sated. So long as it appears that someone has more, they will demand more. It seems that it is these people who are now demanding that the rest of us fork over $700,000,000,000.00 so that they can keep doing what they have been doing while they collect mind-boggling salaries of $73,000,000.00 a year. Here, on the lower levels of the economy, business goes on. It will continue to go on even if the big spenders don't get their money-fix. If our representatives in government wish to help the economy, they can provide money for our health care, purchase foreclosed properties outright, and allow the investment bankers to bear the personal consequences for their greed.
Anonymous | 9/30/2008 - 4:49pm
I wish I could read one paper in this land that does not follow the Obama call for being in my face. I expected better from America, especially since by promoting Obama you are promoting someone who is against one of the very pillars of the Catholic Church--the sanctity of life. However, that is not the only or main reason why I oppose Obama. Articles like this--in the spirit of 'being in my face' and declaring everything in opposition to The One does as being a 'stunt' (read 'cynical', 'stupid', 'against humanity', 'bitter', 'religious', etc. etc.)--that convince me to vote againt personality cult, stealth marxism (remember liberation theology?) and slow erosion of our freedom (take a look at the Obama camp asking law enforcement to prosecute those who 'lie' about Obama. And who defines a lie? Also under the SEcond Amendment, I can lie at my heart's content; particularly in politics.). The only reason I am not cancelling my subscription to this magazine (as I have done with Time and a few others) is that I am loyal to the Jesuit Order and except for lapses like this, it is a great mature commentator in the Catholic life and scholarship.
Anonymous | 9/29/2008 - 9:06am
So judgmental . . . what a pity that we do not take it as an opportunity to see McCain for what he is a dedicated soldier instead of the liberal interpretation that he is a ''stunt men.'' One is always able to count on liberals to say that the sky is falling, we are all going to die and everyone is a fraud. McCain is a man of character and was doing what he believed was right, being a good soldier. Denigrating the man as doing this as a ''stunt'' is so very wrong. Amen.
Anonymous | 9/29/2008 - 8:44am
So judgmental . . . what a pity that we do not take it as an opportunity to see McCain for what he is a dedicated soldier instead of the liberal interpretation that he is a "stunt men." One is always able to count on liberals to say that the sky is falling, we are all going to die and everyone is a fraud. McCain is a man of character and was doing what he believed was right, being a good soldier. Denigrating the man as doing this as a "stunt" is so very wrong. Amen.