The YMCA and the “Invisible Hand”Written by Eric McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The South YMCA will close because of money problems. There is too little of it to keep it open; too much of it to have the necessary passion to try.
The “too little” part is easy to understand. Depending on whom you believe, the South Y is running about $100,000 to $300,000 a year short. Everyone knows you can’t do that for very long. Add to that the need for $2 million in repairs and you are talking real money. If the local community cannot provide enough membership to keep it going, then other sources of funding would need to be sought. The decision makers argue that there are no other sources of income. So it must close.
The “too much” part is also easy to understand. When one has attained a certain level of financial affluence, one can easily become inoculated from understanding the hopes and dreams, the needs and necessities, the gifts and abilities of people living in a different, less affluent socioeconomic class. What did Marie Antoinette say when she heard the poor had no bread to eat? “Let them eat cake.” This sounds a lot like the implied, “Let them ride their bikes over to the Y on the campus of UT Med Center.”
I am sure that all parties involved mean well, work hard and have the best interest of the YMCA/JCC in mind. But the salary levels do place the leadership in a culture where individuals can be easily immunized from understanding an urban and working class way of life. Consider the revealing comment reported in the Aug. 9 Blade by Paul Schlatter, the president of the YMCA/JCC Board: “That would be a bad business decision.”
Of course, it would be a bad business decision. To do anything else would be to go against the grain of the prevailing myth of our day: the myth of the “invisible hand” of the marketplace. This myth suggests that if we simply let the markets go on their merry way, we will discover greater efficiencies and lower costs. Competition will free society to climb to new heights of wealth as the quick, the clever and the entrepreneurial release their economic creativity and energy.
This myth may work well for commerce (though the recklessness of Wall Street bankers makes this an arguable point), but applying this myth to the way we teach our children, care for our sick, address the needs of our marginalized and make our communities healthy creates conflict. Mission gets reshaped in light of market principles. Needs get redefined by “good business practice.” So it becomes easier for a faith-based organization that once served the community by providing an a variety of programs and services designed to support neighborhoods and help people with needs to morph into just another health club in the ‘burbs.
In a different age, a different myth prevailed. A sense of community required boundaries placed around this so-called “invisible hand.” Lawyers were not allowed to advertise — it was thought unseemly and that to do so would compromise the nobility of this great profession. Drug companies were not allowed to peddle their wares to patients for fear that a manufactured demand for a product might unfairly influence a doctor’s decision. Religious communities and faith-based organizations would establish missions in impoverished and low-income areas knowing full well that they would have to be subsidized by their more affluent members. This myth suggested that there were other values beyond those of the marketplace. The South Toledo Y was founded in that age.
I suppose those days are gone. The myth of the “invisible hand” has carried the day. The pain it has caused has touched every player, from the decision makers to the people who make use of the facility.
The late Joseph Campbell reminded us that healthy myths help us relate to the holy, cultivate a personal identity, learn how to live with one another and celebrate the fact that all things in creation are inter-connected with each other. It is the unhealthy myths that get us into trouble. They make us forget where we come from and what our mission was. They separate and insulate us from each other. Maybe there really is no responsible way to save the South Y. Maybe the decision makers are right. But I can’t help to think there might be a different outcome if the myths we use to make sense of things were more community centered and, therefore, healthier.
Eric McGlade is a United Methodist pastor living in Bowling Green.