Our Subprime Federal Government, and a Lesson for the Church

They’re at it again with credit:

Earlier this month, a congressional oversight panel released its first analysis of the Obama administration’s $75 billion Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), an effort to keep 4 million families from losing their homes. The analysis shows that the Treasury, in trying to keep people in homes they can’t afford, is relying on the same perverse principle that inflated the housing bubble in the first place: namely, that it’s fine to borrow recklessly to buy a house, because house prices can only go up and up. Trying to maintain a bubble mentality, rather than help people adjust to life after the bubble has burst, will hobble economic recovery.

If there’s one lesson from the economic disaster of the last year and a half or so, it’s that one can only expand one’s wealth on credit for so long, then things come to an abrupt halt.  It makes sense, therefore, that a salutary long-term objective would be that it’s necessary to find a system that facilitates more sustainable economic growth without the need for wide-open credit and zero savings, especially on the consumer level.

But our government has not learned this lesson, even if that lesson would facilitate some of its own objectives, such as making us do with less and thus burning fewer fossil fuels.

But I’d like to take this in another direction: why is Christianity in the U.S. largely AWOL on this issue?  There was a time when thrift and deferred gratification was a part of the Christian message.  Is the Scotch-Irish influence so strong that both of these concepts have been thrown out the window, even in the church?  Has prosperity teaching forced us to become riverboat gamblers with credit so we can make God (and ourselves) look good?  Is our desire to keep up with the world forcing us to keep on the world’s borrowing binge, only forced off with disasters such as the last year?  And why is a way whose ultimate purpose is eternal life so unwilling for the most part to be real “salt and light” on this issue?

I realise there are those in Christianity who have figured this out.  But I get the feeling that the message hasn’t quite sunk in completely just yet.  As a teacher, that bothers me.

9 Replies to “Our Subprime Federal Government, and a Lesson for the Church”

  1. Strange- here in the UK the Scottish (“Scotch” in general only ever applies to whisky, or maybe tartan, whilst “whiskey”, oddly, can never be Scotch- we’d most likely say “Scots-Irish”) are considered so thrifty that banks make an effort to employ people with scottish accents in their call centres, as research shows that people are more likely to trust them with their money. The protestant Scottish miser is something of a cultural stereotype over here (Mr. Brown the current Prime Minister is typically stereotyped as a dour thrifty Scot, despite his massive bailout of the banks). The Irish, of course, get the same old drunken gambler stereotype you give here. I wonder when the amalgamation took place?


  2. First, I am aware that “Scotch” properly applies only to whiskey, but the moniker “Scotch-Irish” has stuck. The people in question (and that includes some of my own ancestors) left Scotland for Ulster in the wake of the enclosures, and many moved onward to the American colonies, principally the Appalachian Mountain region and westward.

    The result of this influx (combined with others from the North of England) is this:


    The ones that stayed in Ulster, of course, have made that a complicated situation ever since.

    It’s an interesting aspect of the British Empire that the mother country was far more willing to use the colonies (esp. the American and Australian ones) as places to send troublemakers and other “undesirables” (religious dissenters, debtors, indentured servants, etc.) than, say, the French, who wouldn’t even let the Huguenots populate a place like Quebec. (Many of them ended up here.)

    As my wife is evidence of, Southerners are certainly capable of thrift (and Southern states generally have low tax rates and a parsimonious dole) but when they take the lid off of that, it’s not pretty.

    As far as Gordon Brown is concerned, like politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, we should watch what he does and not what he says or the image he projects.


  3. Thankyou- it’s interesting to note these differences in language! (I think you may have again made a mistake with “whiskey” vs. “whisky” ; I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough however to properly counter- you would have to ask a Scot!). I know relatively little about the protestant settlement of Ulster, although my understanding is that it was a mixture of Cromwellian oppression, spoils to scots for their help in the depostion of the Charles I, and of course most importantly the deposition of the (catholic) James II by William of Orange and the Whig Parliament in our “Glorious Revolution”. Whence the Battle of the Boyne and the Orange Order. That said, these might all be effects rather than causes of the attempted protestantism of Ireland- settlement might well have begun earlier, encouraged by other protestant Monarchs. My guess as to why France didn’t send it’s “undesirables” to the colonies is that by the time that kind of policy came into force, France didn’t have many accessible colonies. The Huguenots mostly ended up in Chelsea in London- though doubtless many made the extra trip across the Atlantic before the Napoleonic Wars broke out leaving France and continental Europe as one power bloc and Britain and her sea Empire as another. It’s around this time that Britain started it’s policy of deportation for crims- which is why Austrailia has a big convict population, but the states and Canada are mostly (at this time) made up of voluntary migrants (often of an evangelical or non-state religious bent). As to the idea that different migrants are responsible for the different character of the northern and southern states- I’m not convinced, at least on the basis of the article you highlight, although I’m always open to persuasion. Firstly, there is, and has always been much migration within the British Isles itself, and it seems to me to be very tricky to try and sort out which migrants came from where, exactly. Religion is a good marker, but evangelism had it’s hold in the south as well as the north. Catholic-Protestant tensions persist in football teams in Liverpool and Glasgow (although this may be a later development than the time we’re talking about). Secondly the article you cite is a little simplistic- that celts were potato farmers certainly applies to Ireland, but they were a subjugated nation. The Scots were a serious rival to England for many centuries, and became hardcore protestants far more than the English did, and were never “subjugated” in the same way- acceding to the act of Union for economic reasons, yet they were celts. If we were to go back further, we could also examine the way the Irish “civilised” the English by bringing Christianity to their pagan shores in circa the 8th century. My take on the difference between southerners and Northerners in the US would be that the southerners had an economy that relied on the export of cotton to the UK (and hence made them dependent on it) whilst northerners developed an economy that was independent of the UK. Both were protestant and evangelical, but whilst this became a boon in the north, the south, being dependent on slave labour, developed in a different fashion. I’d say the proof of this would be over here in the British Isles, where there are many examples not only of the Irish and the Scottish doing remarkably well, but also of the southern English falling seriously foul of all the problems that modern society can throw up. In fact, I believe that it’s here in the south of England that we have the highest credit card debt, whilst our celtic cousins have been rather more thrifty…


  4. I think it’s interesting to note that Georgia was started as a penal colony.

    I live in southeast Tennessee, and although we tend to have a high bankruptcy rate, we also don’t have the real estate woes such as are taking place in Florida, Arizona and California.


  5. Still, if the hypothesis is that celts have exported bad societies to the southern USA, why don’t we see a similar pattern in British Isles?


  6. There are two ways to answer that.

    The first is that Scotland, being an integral part of the UK, was drawn out of its isolation, had its educational level raised, and as a result shed many of the social woes that were brought to these shores. (Maybe not all: in the wake of the Lockerbie sentence release, someone pointed out that Scotland had the highest murder rate in Europe, although I can’t verify that.) That’s the explanation of the American scholar Thomas Sowell in his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals. (His main subject was to compare the experience of black people raised in the South under the influence of Southern whites vs. those elsewhere such as New England or the British West Indies, but that’s a whole different subject.) Those who came from Scotland and Ireland here lived pretty much as they always had, which is why (for example) Cecil Sharp found all of the folk songs he was missing in the UK when he came to North Carolina.

    Another is to look at the ongoing woes of Northern Ireland.

    Although Southern society has its problems, there are strong points too. Much of our heritage of personal freedom, esp. religious freedom, and a strong concept of property rights come from a people who came here to exercise both unfettered. The Scotch-Irish have been the backbone of the U.S. military, as the Union found out the hard way in the early years of our Civil War. (The lack of Southern industrialisation was the undoing of the Confederacy.) And, as Sowell points out, they burned witches in Massachusetts, not Virginia or South Carolina.

    One thing that has certainly got me thinking in this discussion is the nature of Celtic thrift. Most people connect thrift with industriousness, but the more I think about it the more it seems to connect with laziness. “A penny saved is a penny earned,” and it’s easier to save one than work for it. (And I do remember the pre-decimalisation coppers.) But, as I said, that does break down, and when it does it’s a mess.

    Celtic societies also have a knack for survival in difficult times. That’s the reason the Irish could bring back Christianity and civilisation to a Britain when Roman rule had collapsed.


  7. I am going to agree with you that the ministers are not standing up. I think there are two reasons. One is the church is decided on a maximum market approach. If they come down strongly on a current issue they might lose a few members. Two, they are concerned about there own IRA’s.
    Like James, the Scots-Irish part stuck out to me. I am descended from a Scots-Irishman. Thrift is a part of my families values. My wife doesn’t like me joining her on trips to the supermarket. As far as the work ethic it is different than a Puritans, probably stronger. Scots is loosely describing the genetic component of the term, and Irish is describing the place of recent immigration. The religious difference made inter-marriage difficult. Lowland Scots bloodline is mixed with Celt, Angle, Frisian, Dutch, French, English again (Northern descended from Angles) as my Uncle says, Heinz 57 sauce. It’s becoming fashionable now to try to define the Scots-Irish politically so as to move us into a Democratic camp, but the attempt shows they haven’t bothered to really find out about who we are and what motivates us.
    As far as the money issue, as a People (the American People) we
    have been expecting the Government to solve too many of our problems. This new Congress is displaying exactly what this mindset results in. The utter arrogance that every individuals suffering can be repaired with the Public money!!! There is a proper role of government to regulate the markets and enforce the rules, but the role they are trying to play is that of God himself. We need to get back to the minding of our own “interest”, and the proper form of a Republic. Good fences make good neighbors.


  8. I spent a lot of time with James on the subject of the Scots-Irish and the Celtic South and won’t belabour the point. As I mentioned, I too have Scots-Irish in my background and am married to a thrifty wife. But I’ve discovered that the dynamics of thrift in this culture are different from others because the motivation is different.

    I also noticed that you, Peter, are far away from the Celtic South, so your perspective on this is different. It’s even different further north in states which have a healthy component of the “Appalachian Diaspora,” such as Pennsylvania and the southern part of the old Northwest Territory.

    One thing I’ll reiterate is the parsimonious nature of Southern state governments. I think this comes from the realisation that, if they ever jacked up the taxes and opened the coffers like they do further north (and west,) they would be trampled in the rush and the whole society would collapse.

    Come to think of it, that’s what’s going on now everywhere…


  9. I whole-heartedly agree with your frustration. There was a point last year where you could identify states who had made wise choices and those who didn’t. The stimulus was just another bail-out, but for the states and corrupt inner-city. The stupid only learn by pain, and the Dems spent the responsible peoples money to postpone their pain; thus avoiding the humiliation and introspection necessary to make positive change.
    If you could send James my E-mail address I would like to ask him a few questions. Thanks, Peter


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