What would John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and the preacher of one of the most famous sermons on the use of money, say about vulture capitalism?
First, what is vulture capitalism?
Vulture capitalism is a verbal bomb being thrown by politicians and pundits in the Republican presidential campaign. Some find it reprehensible; others find it defensible.
“There’s a real difference between venture capitalism and vulture capitalism,” said Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Fox News. “Venture capitalism we like. Vulture capitalism, no.”
“We’re trying to lure more venture capitalists into my home state every day,” said Perry in South Carolina, “but the idea that you get private equity companies to come in and, you know, take companies apart so they can make quick profits and then people lose their jobs, I don’t think that’s what America’s looking for. I hope that’s not what the Republican Party’s about.”
He said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney pursued “vulture capitalism.”
Another Republican Party presidential contender, Newt Gingrich, accused Romney of “looting” companies as the head of a private equity firm.
Gingrich’s message about predatory capitalism is reinforced by a pro-Gingrich super PAC that is running a 27-minute documentary attacking Romney’s business record.
Fact-check organizations have disputed some of the facts in the documentary.
In defense of his attack on Romney, Gingrich has said, “I’m for capitalism.”
“I think there’s a real difference between people who believe in the free market and people who go around, take financial advantage, loot companies, leave behind broken families, broken towns, people on unemployment,” said Gingrich. “It’s not fine if the person who is rich manipulates the system and gets away with all the cash and leaves behind the human beings.”
Actually, one of Romney’s hired hands created the “vulture” ad to use in the California Republican primary against Meg Whitman.
“For most Californians, the financial crisis was a disaster. For Meg Whitman, it was easy money. With Goldman Sachs, Whitman invested heavily in vulture funds, profiting from California foreclosures,” ran the ad with circling and shrieking vultures. The ad shows a vulture tearing at a carcass.
Vulture capitalism is both a nasty campaign image and a way to describe negatively those who appear more concerned about making a profit than a product, more driven by their personal gain than the good of others.
The vulture capital narrative works in a country where the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, where unemployment and underemployment are crushingly high, where bank and corporate bonuses make little sense, given that many actually don’t produce anything.
And of course, there are those who want to cut taxes on the rich and shift more of the tax burden to the middle class and poor.
Now, what would John Wesley say about vulture capitalism?
While Wesley (1703-91) didn’t write about vulture capitalism, he did preach a must-read sermon on the wise use of money. He did so during the same era that Adam Smith (1723-90) wrote about capitalism.
Under the title “The Use of Money,” Wesley urged Christians: Gain all you can, save all you can and give all you can.
His characterization of what it means to gain all one can is as morally relevant today as centuries ago.
“[W]e ought not to gain money at the expense of life, nor at the expense of our health,” said Wesley.
Accompanying his advocacy of self-care was neighbor care.
Wesley said that people should gain all they could without “hurting our neighbor.”
Harming one’s neighbor “we may not, cannot do, if we love our neighbor as ourselves. We cannot, if we love everyone as ourselves, hurt anyone in his substance. We cannot devour the increase of his lands, and perhaps the lands and houses themselves, by gaming, by overgrown bills (whether on account of physic, or law, or anything else,) or by requiring or taking such interest as even the laws of our country forbid,” said Wesley.
“We cannot, consistent with brotherly love, sell our goods below the market price; we cannot study to ruin our neighbor’s trade, in order to advance our own; much less can we entice away or receive any of his servants or workmen whom he has need of,” he said. “None can gain by swallowing up his neighbor’s substance, without gaining the damnation of hell!”
He advocated gain “by honest industry,” underscoring his belief in hard work.
“Gain all you can, by common sense, by using in your business all the understanding which God has given you. It is amazing to observe, how few do this; how men run on in the same dull track with their forefathers,” said Wesley. “You should be continually learning, from the experience of others, or from your own experience, reading, and reflection, to do everything you have to do better today than you did yesterday. And see that you practice whatever you learn, that you may make the best of all that is in your hands.”
Wesley favored gain with the guidelines of hard work, honest work, balanced work, quality work – work that regarded a neighbor’s well being.
Do vulture capitalism, predatory capitalism, capitalism that loots companies, and capitalism that harms many and richly rewards a few qualify as an acceptable way to gain all one can?
Not hardly – according to John Wesley.