Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 4 “Nothing but the Present”

Note: I’ve also written a critical review of the whole series in one post.

Kathryn Tanner continues her analysis of the temporal dimensions of finance dominated capitalism in this fourth lecture with attention to how the present is magnified in importance. The end goal of maximal profit generation requires perfect attention to the present task; one needs to be totally absorbed. This happens for many reasons, including the time scarcity created by impending deadlines for work to be completed, no possibility of deferment, no slack or forgiveness, all of which mean the first time is the only chance a worker has to succeed. The only way to finish many tasks is through 100% effort. This scarcity mindset extends the impact of finance dominated capitalism to many of life’s spheres. For instance, those without large cash reserves must pay extreme attention to the present so they can stretch their cash as far as possible. There is no room for slack in the money flow here, and errors or emergencies have disastrous consequences for many.

The present loses its temporal dimension because past and future are here collapsed “leaving nothing but the present.” One simply does not have any time to consider the future so the consequences of present action cannot be properly weighed (e.g. by considering long term effects). Tanner argues that here short term benefits far outweigh the importance of long term considerations. One often may in this way use up resources that are meant for the future. For example, she cites pay advances and payday loans which greatly hinder one’s longer term well-being. By having to pay higher interest rates than before when they had no money to begin with, “one is even less prepared to address future potentialities.” These practices mean scarcity only increases in the future – like a snowball effect.

More generally, events can often become merely a series of presents – no past memories or future anticipations – because one’s life is totally filled with small fires to put out. When the past or the future is rarely considered, it is only the immediate, not the distant past or future. In finance dominated capitalism, things too far into the future or past just don’t matter at all. Changing market conditions seem to make them irrelevant (“market dynamism”). Changing circumstances and market volatility make long-term predictions much more difficult so the result is that one should “take what one can get now because it’s unclear what the future might bring.”

In fact, Tanner argues that the short term is where all the profit is anyways in finance dominated capitalism. This is true with regard to stock investments or with management decisions that have an immediate impact on shareholder value in lieu of long-term planning. Short term profits can, hopefully, avoid risks associated with volatility – the longer one is in the market, the longer one is exposed to risk, for instance. This “short-termism,” as Tanner calls it, is a method for avoiding risk and capitalizing on rapid market changes where speed is the cardinal virtue (e.g. one has to beat others to profit from buying or selling stocks) – profit is a function of speed.

Secondary markets function this way to avoid waiting long for profits. There is widespread near simultaneous buying and selling assets, and both buying investments short and long at the same time to offset risk. This quick timing is difficult to narrate or put into a historical timeline because it just appears like plenty of presents. Present profit-making in finance has nearly no temporal duration, it is instant.

Shifting her focus to the plight of workers in short-termism, Tanner argues that they are the ones paying for the short-termism, but not the ones who stand to benefit from it. Workers, for example, lose their jobs if corporate short-termism strategies fail, but many times CEO’s can easily cash out their stocks before their management tactics end up in the long term decline of their company. In fact, layoffs make profits and stock values rise! The long-term benefit of workers consists in their consistently being paid high wages and given benefits, but this is often in contradiction to shareholder interests where payroll cuts result in immediate short term gains on the markets.

Short-termism, in this way, becomes a good thing for the rich who have plenty of cash reserves to gamble with, but a horrible thing for the relative poor whereby it is a financial emergency. Tanner is intent here to emphasize this difference in benefit depending on whether you are rich (short-termism is therefore a profit opportunity) or poor (it is a constant threat to well-being). Moreover, the poor are less likely to take the risks that those who have cash reserves can because their failures are of varying degrees of importance. But often healthy risks allow one to advance in life, etc., but fear of loss largely gets in the way of the poor taking these sorts of healthy career risks that the rich can easily take. In this way, there can exist a counter-intuitive repelling of threats to the status quo (of barely scraping by month to month).

Directing attention now to a Christian response, Tanner argues that Christianity is also occupied with an urgent notion of the present. She says, “A Christian approach to the present has the capacity to infiltrate the way finance dominated capitalism encourages one to relate to it, and therefore disrupts it, since the reasons and effects of such a focus on the present moment are diametrically opposed.”

Each moment is urgent for devoting to God – one shouldn’t delay their conversion for example – because one is to always conform their life to God. But, this focus on the present is not at all due to conditions of scarcity, unlike capitalism. God’s abundant grace gives us all we need for our present focus. Conversion should be seized, not because time is scarce per se, but because the offer is so incredibly generous. “Grace is permanently on offer,” she says, and what makes one seize the offer of God’s grace is not its fleeting character but the attractiveness of the offer itself.

Conversion forgives past faults and sins and results in grace providing plenty of slack to make up for human failures. One, in this way, need not worry too much about the past because they know the future will be good. Grace is what enables us to turn toward God and that grace is available anew each and every day. Moreover, God is always present in the “now” of God’s eternity, if you will. We should view the present as God does (hence, teachings like the communion of saints). The whole of time is present to God because God is present now in grace. But this is not just a consideration of the present. There is still a Christian narrative to be told (see previous lecture). Tanner argues that the successive events of one’s life matter in their particularity, but one is always directing them toward the same end – orienting them to God. This orientation to God as the overarching goal of life is what unifies the past, present, and future circumstances of believers. The constancy here that matters is God’s, not our own. There is no need to zealously protect the present for the sake of personal security because it is God who makes us secure.

Further Reading – Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir



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