Its hot here in Tennessee and Im thinking about Popsicles. Ill get back to that.
Last weekend, my wife, Janet, and I drove over to Hohenwald, seat of tiny Lewis County, Tennessee (pop. 11,000-plus). Although best known as the place on the Natchez Trace where Meriwether Lewis met his melancholy end and is buried (suicide, robbery, or victim of a federal plot, take your pick ), and the home of the countrys largest elephant refuge (yes, youre reading that right), Hohenwald also has become a little Berkeley in the Southeast. Its bucolic setting and relatively low cost of living have made it an attractive haven for proponents of what Californians call eco-friendly living and Southerners tend to call, well, best just to leave that to your imagination.
But the transplants have become welcome neighbors, and in June Hohenwald hosts the Sonnenshein Festival , a weekend of community consciousness raising about things like fuel from alcohol (and no, Im not talking about Jack Daniels), wind power, organic vegetables, and folks selling macramé and local honey, all accompanied by ol timey music from families like the Huntleys .
The music was good, the honey great, and the folks delightful, but we were there to hear Catherine Austin Fitts, the director of Solari . A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School, Austin Fitts worked for a decade on Wall Street, becoming the managing director and member of the board of Dillon, Reed & Company, a private investment bank. She left Wall Street to join the Bush I administration as assistant secretary for housing“federal housing commissioner, where she was instrumental in cleaning up the savings-and-loan mess and in passing three acts of Congress (HUD Reform Act of 1989, The Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990, and the Government Management Reform Act of 1994).
Upon leaving the Bush administration, she was offered a place on the board of the New York Federal Reserve but instead founded her own company, The Hamilton Securities Group. Through competitive bid, Hamilton was awarded contracts by the Clinton administration. After several years, the firm ran afoul of the government, and although Austin Fitts and her company were eventually exonerated from any wrongdoing, her experience made her re-evaluate her relationship with Wall Street and Washington (something she chronicles in The Aristocracy of Stock Profits , which, if it werent online, would make the best beach read of the summer). Austin Fitts left Washington, downsized, moved to Hickory Valley Tennessee, and founded Solari.
When considering the matter of religion and the public square we tend to think a lot about the relationship between faith and the courthouse, schools, universities, the medical community, and between different faiths and confessions. But we seem to forget about The Bank. This is a problem (and a typical problem of academics who forget that somebody has to pay for the ivory tower and write those monthly checks that keep the elevator turned on). Its the bank that intimately and daily (if not hourly) connects the various parts of our society by pumping money through them. Money is a societys blood, that thing that allows and coordinates its various workings, and the bank is the heart that keeps that blood flowing. If were going to think about the impact of faith on our culture, we need to think deeply about faith and the world of money. We need to think about The Bank.
This is where Austin Fitts is particularly helpful. She understands money, how it is created, how it flows, and how it can be drained away. But she is more than a highly sophisticated financial analyst. A Baptist, she speaks openly, and unoperaticly, of the importance of faith in her life. She is deeply concerned about the necessity of honest monetary practices for our societys health (both physical and spiritual), and from her experience in New York and Washington in both Republican and Democrat administrations she is highly informed on how deeply threatened that health is.
That something is amiss with our economy is hardly news to any of us who pump gasoline. And the Web is full of analysts who explain why¯with theories of all levels of zaniness (and, more often than not, predictions of thrilling horror). Austin Fitts is not immediately dismissive of conspiracy scenarios (the Bilderburg Group after all does actually exist), but she has little interest in either their baroque extravagance or pessimism. Having diagnosed the disease (a rather painful process in itself), she offers sensible solutions. And thats what she was talking about in Hohenwald: a bit of diagnosis and doable routes to community health.
As would be expected from someone with her background, Austin Fitts regimen is sophisticated and nuanced and cant be given justice quickly, but it is predicated on some simple points. First, take responsibility and get the lay of the land .Then turn off the TV. Invest in people you know and trust. This means investing locally: local banks, local farmers, local entrepreneurs. And, most important, help each other. Financial people, activists, inventors, even professors: We need each other. For this to work we must find ways in which honest and sustainable growth can be profitable, equally attractive to moralists and investors (who dont have to be different persons).
While Austin Fitts analyses is controversial and has its detractors, the necessity of individual accountability, cooperation, and profitability is as old as William Bradfords reforms at Plymouth Plantation. And they are as sensible in 2008 as they were in 1623. In the seventeenth century, the Pilgrims knew these principles were working when they were no longer starving to death and were able to pay off the London merchants who had fronted them the money for their voyage. How can we tell if they are working in the twenty-first?
Which brings me back to Popsicles. Austin Fitts has developed her own model of community health. She calls it the Popsicle Index. The Popsicle Index is the percentage of people in a community who think that an elementary-school child can safely walk to the neighborhood grocery and come home with a Popsicle¯alone. When she was a little girl, Austin Fitts thinks that everybody in her old Philadelphia neighborhood thought that she could do that. And she did. The Popsicle Index was near 100 percent. Now, in that same neighborhood, going alone to the grocery to buy a Popsicle isnt something very many mothers would allow. Fifty years later, the index has dropped to 10 percent, maybe lower. (Its certainly zero here in Murfreesboro.)
Autsin Fitts Popsicle Index is a wonderfully simple measurement of a communitys confidence in its well-being. A high index means the community is healthy and also attractive for investors. A low Popsicle Index means there are problems on almost every level. Its also offers a startling perspective of our last half centurys history: In 1958 the Dow Jones average was about 492. Today (June 17), its at 12282. As the Dow has increased, our Popsicle Index has concurrently collapsed.
Of course, this isnt science: The Popsicle Index isnt based on quantifiable data collection; its an intuitive measurement, but I think we still know its right. And I also think we dont want to live this way. We dont want to live economic¯or spiritual—lives where part of our life is being enriched while other parts are being suffocated. And at least in regards to our relationship with that bank on the public square, Catherine Austin Fitts has some suggestions that merit consideration. And anyway, when have we ever turned down a Popsicle?
Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.