by Waitsel Smith
Since he took office, Pope Francis has been speaking out against greed, saying that it destroys both nations and individuals; that unfettered capitalism is tyranny; that "trickle-down economics" doesn't work; and that the rich have an obligation to take care of the poor, which they are not doing. In short, we are failing to fulfill Christ's command to love because we love something else more: money. I tend to agree with him.
We here in America have just witnessed what is perhaps the most shameful display of greed in our nation's history - the eclipse of Thanksgiving by Black Friday. This year, Black Friday began on Thanksgiving day, rather than waiting until the Friday after. One woman, who couldn't be with her family for Thanksgiving because she was out shopping, defended her choice by saying, "I'm doing this for them." Sure you are, lady. No, you're greedy and materialistic, and you're laying the groundwork for your children to be just as greedy and materialistic as you are. It can now be said with relative certainty that the United States is more greedy than it is thankful.
Ask anyone who is informed of current events what has caused the failure of Furniture Brands International, and they will say greed. If you don't know who Furniture Brands is, you ought to - they have almost single-handedly destroyed one of the oldest and finest industries in America. They started in the shoe trade as International Shoe Company, changed their name to Interco in 1966, and began buying up furniture companies in 1980, beginning with Ethan Allen. They later acquired Broyhill (1986) and Lane (1987), the two biggest names in the industry. I worked for Lane as a furniture designer from 1989 through 1994, and my only recollection of Interco is as "the Mother Ship."
As an immediate result of their entry into furniture, Interco acquired more debt than they could handle - $1.9 billon in 1988. An early casualty was Ethan Allen, which they sold off. In 1991, Interco filed for chapter 11. But they got through that, and in 1995 bought Thomasville Furniture, giving them a total annual revenue of over $1 billion.
In 1996, Interco changed their name to Furniture Brands International. They later added Drexel Heritage, Henredon, Maitland-Smith and other brands to their stable of companies, making them the number one manufacturer of furniture in the world.
Part of their strategy for profitability was to ship US manufacturing overseas. By 2008, 8,726 jobs had been lost in North Carolina alone, and 39 of their 57 US plants had been closed. In my hometown of Lenoir, which is the home of Broyhill Furniture, unemployment rose above 25% - same as the unemployment rate at the height of the Great Depression - although our government would not admit that.
In 2004, Furniture Brands' stock was worth a total of $1.8 billion. By 2013, it had plunged to $31 million. It has lost money every year since 2007. According to analyst Budd Bugatch of Raymond James & Associates, the board members of Furniture Brands were like the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm. In September, those "pigs" filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy again. To add insult to injury, the judge approved a generous golden parachute settlement for the top executives. In November, KPS Capital Partners acquired Furniture Brands, changed the name to Heritage Home Group and began cleaning house. Executives have been jumping off - or been thrown off - that "Mother Ship" like rats.
Meanwhile, the furniture industry lies in shambles. Craftsmen that have handed down the art of furniture-making from generation to generation for centuries are now disappearing. Factories lie silent. Once thriving communities are barely hanging on. Thousands of families have been thrown into poverty. And the beat goes on. The beat of greed.
This insatiable god continues to gobble up people and nations, as deals are being made in back rooms, both in the world's business centers and in our own nation's capital. Money is exchanging hands. The rich are getting richer. And Republicans, who have all but forsaken their values, don't get it. While propagating their myth of trickle-down economics, all they've done is fed the system that is destroying us. And Democrats, while acting like they care about the poor, have taken us even closer to the brink of disaster by spending money we don't have, putting us in debt to lesser nations - nations that don't hold our values. All for the love of money.
Our greed is destroying us. And we're all greedy - the poor as well as the rich. Our materialism is destroying us. That's what happens when we have too much. That's what happens when we neglect the poor. We become like the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm.
Or… we can change course and become more like Christ, who told the rich young man to sell all he had, give it to the poor and follow Him. What part of that do we not understand?
A friend, Norm Grey, recently wrote me this very thoughtful note, which I think puts greed (and its opposite) into perfect perspective:
"It's funny that just this weekend I thought, 'Wow, just a few more weeks and It's A Wonderful Life will be on again.'
"I know I can get it any time. But it's like sledding, it's so much more appropriate in December than July.
"As I get older, and older and older, beautiful things make me cry even more than not so beautiful things.
"While, like people who go to cult movies recite the script with the actors, I can just about do that with this movie. I still get a lump in my throat - many times - and just as many times, tears run down my cheeks.
"The reason is, I think, the loss of innocence (which has been around since the second generation of cavemen) but even more, the sense of community that once was.
"I know things were not so rosy… ever. Greed has existed since Cain and Abel and even the serpent.
"Bigotry and robbery and other crimes against our fellow humans are not recent failings.
"But I was a five-year-old during the 2nd World War. And I remember, even the home front and even little kids 'fought' that war together.
"We had scrap drives. No new cars were designed or built. You couldn't get basic creature comforts.
"Today, while men and women are dying in Afghanistan, we're more concerned about what color car to buy. And whether the Falcons can win a game or not.
"Thanks again, for everything, Waitsel. Keep being George Bailey. I'm trying to be him too."
What insight, and what a compliment! To keep being George Bailey. I want you to keep being him, too.
Happy Thanksgiving. Happy Hanukkah. Merry Christmas. Let's make this holiday season one of giving to those who cannot give back.
Waitsel Smith, December 2, 2013
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Text © 2013 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.