In an opinion piece for CBC today, June 21, 2022, entitled, “Canada is hooked on real estate. It needs a detox’, Toronto lawyer Mark Morris, writes:
“Western economies used to produce products and later on, services. Those products and services created enduring value, jobs and above all, innovation. But we in Canada have not engaged in such projects of late. Instead, we have experienced a lost decade—a decade where a significant amount of available capital and innovation of available capital and innovation has turned to constructing glass buildings in the sky.”
Also, within the last few days, the CEO of a group alphabetized as CTREIT, Kevin Salsberg, was reported to have answered an interviewer’s question about REIT’s role in the Canadian housing shortage and perceived crisis in that medium and low-income Canadians are increasingly unable to acquire affordable housing. He spoke words to this effect:
We are in the business of making profit; you can’t expect us to solve Canada’s social ills.
Sadly, the reporter did not provide a legitimate follow-up question:
While you are in the business of making profit, as we would all agree, do you and your company have or share any responsibility for creating some of Canada’s social ills?
Lawyer Mark Morris articulates a truth about the fixation on real estate, as a generator of profit, without many of the hassles attendant on more complex, and more service-oriented business operations. However, his argument, sadly, is only one highly instrumental aspect of the underlying problem. As far back as 1986, (as recounted earlier in a piece in this space), Lee Iacocca wrote a letter to the presidents of both Yale and Harvard universities, detailing his professional difficulty in attracting their brightest graduates into the auto industry. Both presidents replied to the effect that their schools had been teaching the wrong stuff to their undergraduates. It was clear to the auto executive that Wall Street was like a magnet to these bright minds, immediately following graduation, as “it” and the financial services sector offered the most obvious and most predictable and most efficacious pathway to financial success. The auto industry could not compete.
Derivatives, and a near economic crash and multiple up’s and down’s in the financial markets later by some thirty-plus years later, we note that the pattern of those choices by those “bright” graduates to the “golden ring,” however that ring is conceived by individuals, has overtaken not only many of the brightest graduates on both sides of the 49th parallel, but in many places around the world. The acquisition of personal wealth, the commodification of everything and the equation that makes all of these gears in the economic/financial machine grind smoothly, transactionalism, itself, an excuse for turning all of us into either or both consumer or seller of both things and services/skills are now impaling at least North American culture, including the universities which have morphed into little more than technical training institutes, fixated on providing graduates with the most efficacious and predictable pathway to financial success, as part of their recruiting foundation, serving the explicit needs of business, corporations and the pursuit of both personal and corporate profit.
As Iacocca noted in his memoir, “Straight Talk”, when he went into the business world, while profit was an important aspect of the corporation’s raison d’etre, it was not the only goal. The provision of goods and services, the support of workers and their families, and the general contribution to the public interest were also high on the agenda of boards and executives in those corporate suites. I was privileged to have a family dentist for nigh on half a century who, after being invited to join his roommate in college in a dental practice following graduation, turned the invitation down with words to this effect:
I’m sorry, “X”, but it is clear that you are committed to making as much money as you can from your practice, while that is not my primary goal. I do not believe that our visions of a dental practice are compatible. Consequently, I will not be joining you in your offer.
When an ecclesial bishop defines his “charge” to his diocese as “10 percent more people and 15 percent more revenue,” (also previously noted in this space) as his definition of the spiritual goals of his episcopate, in 1998, we already know that the train of social and economic and political balance and sustainability has gone off the track. Conflating the church’s mission with the terms and goals that would be held in high regard at a General Motors Annual General Meeting of Shareholders, is not only suspect of such leadership. It is also a significant signal that even the pursuit of things spiritual and ethical and moral and the very institution that has for centuries been held to count for those balancing influences, under the rubric and the tutelage of pilgrims, scholars, liturgists and pastors has slipped into the ship of state, not only from the perspective of institutional need for funds and social respectability, but also from the perspective of how it measures itself and its ‘success’ both of the career of the bishop and also of the practice of ministry of those hundreds of men and women toiling under such a myopic if not actually blind leadership.
Can we even imagine a conversation between Iacocca and our episcopal bishop?
Iacocca: What do you mean by reducing your episcopate to one of dollars and numbers of seats in pews when, over the centuries, spiritual monks and pilgrims and members of the religious have dedicated their lives to the search for God and not the limited interests of those of us who attempt to steer large for-profit corporations by both providing goods and services while attaining reasonable profits?
Bishop: Well, I was merely attempting to bring a metaphor of common conventional understanding to the discussion of how our church might grow. The metaphor did not exclude the pursuit of a legitimate search for God, in and through the guidance of the holy scriptures, the weekly liturgy, the traditions of the church, and the individual human experience of both the laity and the clergy. It was a very focused metaphor, relying on the premise that regardless of the orientation of both clergy and laity either to a more liberal or a more conservative theology, most people would be able to connect with and resonate with the metaphor.
Iacocca: And yet, can you see what message your metaphor sends to those not in the room when you delivered your charge? It says to many, including me, that the church has fallen prey to the language, and the mind-set, and the attitudes and the processes of the for-profit corporation. Your dependence on benefactors through the collection plate, in terms of dollars, cannot supercede, even and especially from the mouths of church hierarchy, the reliance of the culture, including its economic and its political and intellectual aspects and personnel and practices on the church’s prophetic voice amid the cacophony of the money-changers. Was it not Jesus himself, who angrily turned over the tables in the temple in a white-hot wave of anger, while turning them out of the temple? And, by your words, have you not risked bringing those money-changers right back into your temples of worship, as those effectively in charge? Of course, you may have theologically disciplined clergy, who are attempting to bring the “word of God” into the pulpit and thereby the pews and to the people sitting there. However, your message denotes and connotes a highly sophisticated marketing approach to your operation and leadership. Do you indeed and in fact rank your clergy on the basis of how much money and how many bums are in pews as your criteria for promotions?
Bishop: Well……it is true that we have to have some manner of determining the effectiveness of individual clergy if we are going to find appropriate assignments for their skills and talents, in order to fit them with congregations who might work with them. And one of the ways to discern their effectiveness is by the numbers; you know, the numbers don’t lie. So, that is an integral component of any assessment of clergy value and appropriateness for advancement.
Iacocca: That response is far more frightening than even I would have expected prior to this conversation. I know that fiscal statements of revenue and expenses have to show more black than red, in order for the enterprise to continue to operate. And yet, I also know, from both a spiritual/theological/psychological perspective that optimism and hope, allegedly the two values most valued after agape love, are highly instrumental in generating altruism and unselfishness and beneficience…those values that will determine the dollars that arrive in the church coffers. And those values, far from stemming from and being birthed from a corporate, business and profit-seeking agenda, originate in a perception and a vision of something far more important, higher, if you like, on the scale of what w humans aspire to….I think the colloquial phrase from my church experience is “seeking to be closer to God”…..Politicians use the phrase, “belonging and serving something larger than ourselves”….and if serving God is not part of that, then we are collectively diminishing ourselves and God by setting our sights so low, as percentage increases of people and dollars. Don’t you agree?
Bishop: I never expected to be on the receiving end of a lecture on theology from a corporate tycoon like you. However, your words and your thoughts and your perceptions and values are striking me in a way that I could not and would not have happened if one of my advisors had been speaking. I am aware that there is considerable pressure from many quarters to “prove” myself as bishop of this diocese. There are many members of the laity who have extremely high standards themselves, in their private lives, and extend, perhaps you could say, project those standards onto their bishop and church. It is an establishment church, and the establishment here are very conscious of, and also conscientious about, their own reputation as part of this diocese. I know that my episcopate will last only a few years, and I am determined to leave a legacy of success when I leave. And that kind of focus is instrumental in my decision-making.
Iacocca: I heard from one of the parishioners in your
diocese that Jesus was the best salesman in history, as if to honour and pay
obeisance to that aspect of His life and reality. And, as I am in the business
of “selling” in all of its many intricate, complex and unsavoury aspects, I have
spent a considerable time reflecting on that statement. I never actually
considered Jesus as a model for the specific act of “selling” all through my
training and practice in school and in business. I learned and how to
investigate and to interpret what the market wanted. I learned that people do
not often tell those intent on digging up public opinion their deepest truth, and
that, in order to appeal to their base instincts, anyone has to take into
account many variables that do not easily submit to empirical evidence standards.
Feelings of consumers, we find, although very hard to approximate, are a
driving force in those ready and willing to write cheques for vehicles. And, if
I may take a moment of pride here, I would like to say something about the
driving forces that resulted in the Ford Company’s design of the original
Mustang. We knew that there were many, mostly men, although some women too, who
would like to be seen and seated in a driving machine that was different,
exciting, somewhat racy, a little futuristic and also, and this was one of the
hardest things, affordable. Of course, the results, both initially and over
time, have far exceeded our highest projections and, for me and for Ford, that has
been a feather in both of our caps. Now, why have I raised this analogy?
It seems to be that the human relationship/connection to the Almighty has some elements that overlap this narrative. The notion of being different, exciting, inspiring, and even a little radical, all features embodied in the Mustang, are symbols of some of the same experiences you and your clergy and laity are seeking, whether or not you give those words to the journey or not. Ford company did not design and produce that vehicle from scarcity; it produced it from a sense of abundance, of talent, of raw materials, of market potential, of artistic and creative imagination and of a need to bring us all to the same page of wonderment and pride.
And while a car is not a symbol of either God or Heaven, nor even a spiritual life of fulfillment, reflection, serenity and inner peace, nor of personal retreats and silences, of prayer and reading of the most intimate spiritual reflections, for example of people like Hildegard of Bingen, in the 12th century. Considered a sick child, she was placed in the care of a Benedictine nun at eight years of age, became a Benedictine nun herself and through a strong dedication to the Holy Spirit attracted others and eventually established a new Benedictine House, as she believed, in answer to a divine command. For us Catholics, Bishop, we revere and learn about such examples of Christian devotion to God, to the Holy Spirit and to the attitudes and lifestyle that sustains and supports that devotion. She did not ‘sell’ those others; she simply lived her life, humbly and quietly and reverentially and that example inspired and stirred others to follow in her manner. It is not only the church that is in danger of losing its way in the cacophony and the whirlwind of public adulation for material success. Our company, too, is unable to attract the brightest graduates from the best universities, many of whom are choosing Wall Street and financial success, rather than something less “glitzy” like the auto industry.
So, when you articulate your diocesan goals and objectives in the very terms I have used for our investors and our board of directors, I know that the train we are both travelling is off the track.
I also see that the clock has run overtime scheduled for this conversation. Perhaps, you would reflect on what we have said, and we could return to our conversation.
Bishop: Sounds like a reasonable plan to me.
To be continued……