The Doleful Dollar

The Doleful Dollar



In “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau proclaims, “the dollar is innocent.”  The virtue in this succinct statement continues to reverberate in America today, perhaps, more than ever before. 


This past week, in the midst of efforts to round up bonuses dispersed by the recently bailed-out AIG, Michael Froman, a former Citigroup executive and now Obama’s deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, announced his decision to give his bonus to a yet undisclosed charity.  But just how altruistic is Froman’s decision? Clearly, yes, it shows he has a conscience, a point of chief concern to Thoreau, who scorned the mindless majority of his day for blindly supporting the government without considering the moral integrity of individual policies and laws.  But I wonder if it wouldn’t have been just as benevolent of Froman, perhaps, even more so, if he had simply declined the money and left it and its doleful companions to do what they need to do—infuse major banking corporations (upon which the future well-being our national economy supposedly hinges) with the capital necessary to resuscitate themselves. 


The dollar’s innocence makes plainly apparent the people’s guilt, making the current financial crisis easily reducible to a medieval morality play, with a few of the seven deadly sins in particular, namely avarice, gluttony, envy, and pride, vying for the soul of our nation’s bankers.  Considered in this light, Froman’s decision might be seen as one more self-satisfying attempt by man to exercise control over his own image and professional profile, if not his grander fate.


Unfortunately, Thoreau’s own reactions to the perceived injustices of his day, such as refusing to pay taxes or ‘aloofly’ withdrawing into the wilderness, prove less than helpful, practically speaking.  Nonetheless, his core beliefs and many aphorisms endure.  In the face of looming personal and political crises that threaten to overwhelm us daily, Americans today would benefit from this final line of advice from him: “A man has not everything to do, but something.”  In doing so, exercise your conscience, and you will be making the most of the best Thoreau has to teach us.



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