As a child of the '50s, one of my heroes was The Lone Ranger, portrayed on TV by Clayton Moore. Later as an adult, I carried on a brief correspondence with Moore, by then long retired and living in Calabasas, California in the hills above Malibu. One of the things I wondered about was how he managed to afford to live in such an expensive neighborhood? Surely by now the money he earned playing The Lone Ranger had long ago run out.
That was how I first learned that the smart people in Hollywood invested most of their earnings in stocks and real estate, because they know that fame is fleeting and few are able to depend upon their movie or sitcom earnings to carry them into old age. You might be surprised to learn how many strip malls, rental properties, and grocery stores are owned behind the scenes by some of your favorite actors, writers, directors, and even rock stars. The monthly income many retired and semi-retired actors receive from their varied investments allows them to continue to live a comfortable middle-to-upperclass existence, even if they never happen to work in movies or television again.
But even the rich and famous are not immune to a disturbance in the force. Since September 2008, when the stock market tanked and the bottom fell out of the housing market, a lot of famous people's investments dried up along with those of everyone else. Just as in 1929, most of the wealth they thought they owned actually existed only on paper. In the fall of 2008, those who were lucky only lost half their net worth. Those not so lucky lost it all. House rentals dropped off when home sales went south. Stores went out of business, and those rents stopped coming in, as well as lease payments from all those companies that had to shut down as the dominoes fell. That's one reason you may be watching TV and see celebrities you haven't thought about in decades suddenly showing up in commercials or popping up in guest roles.
The reality is, many of them need the money. The comfy nest egg they expected would see them through retirement just up and vanished like Keyser Soze.
It's an open secret in Hollywood that even top stars are no longer able to command the million dollar salaries they did in the past, because the entire industry is skittish. And despite the proclivity of the Glitterati to put on appearances, this is a time when even the seemingly affluent are concerned about the future. Privately, many are counting their nickels.
So, were you to suggest at a time like this that anyone in the city of Los Angeles ought to sink upwards of five billion dollars into a brand new shopping mall full of high-end stores intended to cater to the upper classes, the first question you might be asked would be "where would we find enough customers?"
Yet Salt Lake City now boasts just such a high-end retail establishment, taking up 80 square acres opposite Temple Square. Were you to read the roster of tenants, you might mistake it for a list of boutiques lining Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. And predictably, two months shy of a year after opening, the owners of these stores are still asking the question they asked the first week of operation: "Where are the customers?"
There is plenty of foot traffic, to be sure. By all reports, this mall is a must-see, with indoor waterfalls, dancing waters, a trout-filled creek running through the center, and a gigantic retractable glass ceiling to keep out the snow and rain. And of course there are those dozens of hoity-toity high-priced retail stores, many of which the residents of the state have never been in before, or even heard of. So everyone living up and down the Wasatch Front of course has to go and have a look.
But what people are not doing at this mall is spending sufficient money to keep most of these stores in business for the long term. I live in Sacramento, California, so I haven't been there myself, but I have spoken to many people who have. And executives who lease office space at City Creek Center have told me in confidence that things are going about as well for the merchants at City Creek as they are at the malls in my own city.
Which is to say, not well at all.
Already one clothing store has pulled out, and a restaurant is gone. By all reports, the Food Court is doing quite well overall, because even tourists have to eat. But tourists don't have to buy ninety dollar shirts and three hundred dollar gym bags.
Christmas Bells Aren't Blinging
In the world of retail, it is often said that the way to tell if a new store is destined to make it is to see how it weathers its first Christmas season. December sales reports for the stores at City Creek Center have not been encouraging.
entirely funded by our own Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, through its development arm, using billions of dollars culled from prior investments. And what makes this particular project a questionable use of Church money is that anyone who has ever lived and worked in Utah, as I did for more than a decade, knows that there aren't enough high earners living there who make anywhere near the kind of money, even in flush times, to support the calibre of stores that have taken up residence in this mall. The Church will never see a return on this investment. For the corporate arm of LDS, Inc to carelessly pour that much money into this extravagant boondoggle during a time of economic uncertainty is nothing short of boneheaded.
But it would be unfair to blame Church leaders for this misfire. They approved this project way back in 2006, two years before the start of the recession, when everything was still looking quite rosy. They had no way of knowing the economy would go sour. We can't expect these men to be prophets and oracles, now can we?
Yet, other members have reacted defensively to this criticism, accusing those who dare question the wisdom of our leaders in this matter as being tantamount to attacking The Lord's True Church. Some have even applauded this renovation of downtown Salt Lake City as a sign that God's anointed servants are actively building up Zion. So if you openly question the wisdom of the Corporate Church's involvement in this project, prepare for some of your fellow Saints to label you Anti-Mormon.
To these misguided True Believers, I simply wish to say this:
Brothers and sisters, stand down. You do not have to defend this. City Creek is not our religion. It has nothing to do with "Mormonism" by any definition. The City Creek shopping center has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the Kingdom of Heaven will neither rise nor fall with the fortunes of City Creek Center. If you are defending, excusing, and rationalizing this project on the basis of a belief that City Creek must be inspired for the Church to be true, I urge you to rethink your assumptions.
Men at the forefront of this Church have made boneheaded decisions in the past, and they will probably make boneheaded decisions in the future, yet the gospel message will advance and the Kingdom of God will roll forth. Neither the Kingdom nor the gospel are dependent on the 'truthfulness' of any church for their existence; not even this one. They stand independent of any earthly institution. Your testimony should not be dependent upon trusting in the arm of flesh. So please, knock it off.Whether or not you consider the City Creek project to have been a boneheaded move, it is indisputably a wrongheaded one for a church to engage in. Ours is not the first Christian denomination to entangle itself with Mammon, but we do claim to be the very incarnation of the first century church of Christ, so you'd think we might have been more careful. How we got to the point we are today is a fascinating story of a series of seemingly innocuous compromises which eventually resulted in the unintended consequences we now see blowing up in our faces.
How We Came To This
For those wishing to explore how the once spiritually based, egalitarian community founded by Joseph Smith was gradually transformed into a top-down corporate behemoth that is now heavily entangled in the global economy, I recommend two excellent sources: Thomas G. Alexander's Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints 1890-1930, and Daymon Smith's The Book of Mammon: A Book About a Book About the Corporation That Owns the Mormons. Both authors, one a historian and the other a cultural anthropologist, are believing latter-day Saints who trace the transition as having begun in 1890, when the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as a legal entity, was formally dissolved and the church Joseph Smith founded was replaced with something structured a bit differently than the one the Prophet had envisioned.
Two years before City Creek Center opened to considerable fanfare, Andrew Ainsworth conducted an interview with Daymon Smith about Smith's recently published book. The interview is available free online in four parts beginning here, but the fourth part (Mormon Stories Podcast Episode 152) concerns itself with how the financial functions of the Church changed direction since the 20th century to where we now find ourselves, as it were, attempting to serve two masters. This change in dynamics was in play by the early 1900s, after Church leaders decreed that the long accepted practice of paying tithes and offerings in useable commodities such as wheat, corn, apples, chickens, eggs, and milk was no longer acceptable, and that henceforth the members were to tender their donations in cash.
I highly recommend listening to this entire series, and of course reading the book, in order to get the full picture of how these changes came about. But for now, I have abridged and transcribed one section of the interview Smith gave from episode 152 in order to offer an overview of how we seem to have gotten to where we are today. Here is the way Daymon Smith explains it:
"When you monetize tithing, you change the dynamics dramatically. So what you have here is a kind of, at the turn of the century, sort of move from a sort of spiritual economy of tithing and fast offerings, which was very minimal as to what they could actually bring in, but it was also clearly tied to our physical bodies and to the natural cycles of the earth..."
"The main impulse to monetize it was that Lorenzo Snow tried to pass bonds to Eastern bankers in order to get the Church out of its debt that it created with the Salt Lake temple -literally selling the Church into bondage. This strategy wasn't terribly successful, but what they could get done [was] they could get the members to sort of pour in liquid capital. And that's exactly what they did. They changed what tithing was and said well, it's gotta be money. This is what we need in order to pay off our debts. And the windows of heaven indeed opened and massive amounts of capital poured in so that the Church was out of debt very quickly.
"But then the question is, now we've got a kind of problem of having too much money; what are we going to do with all this money? And you know, back then they started sugar companies, and railroad companies, and electric companies -sort of social services you might say with the money to modernize the west and to really increase the quality of life among everybody out here, Mormons or non-Mormons.
"Now in the 1960s they had a real struggle and eventually one side won which was they decided they could indeed invest tithing money. And once you begin to invest tithing money, you create an entirely different dynamic with respect to what decisions are going to be made at the Church headquarters."
"What this does is it changes the dynamic in terms of what the Church is up to. And rather than sort of continually fund things like a sugar operation so that we can get sugar here, and even though we have to continually subsidize the sugar operation, which is what happened in the early 1900s and prior to that, what you have going on now is decisions being made of 'how can we get the expenses down that are tied to the corporation and always keep the revenue up?' Which is to say, we're not going to invest in operations that are losing money. We're not going to fund a hospital that is going to be a continual loser in terms of its money.
"Now of course they fund things like welfare farms and other operations that are designed to be charitable works. But you can see the transition just if you go into Deseret Industries where of course they receive all their merchandise as a donation. But as a part of this transition in the 1980s and 1990s toward more of a 'finance sensitive' corporation, Deseret Industries is a real moneymaker as I understand it; and of course it's justified because the profits that accrue from Deseret Industries are to be put toward funding other good works.
"But what we have here is actually a division between the charitable side of things, which, if you actually look at the amount of capital that is donated to humanitarian aid with respect to the amount of money that is brought in through the donation streams of fast offerings and tithings, you see that it's really a surprisingly small amount of money that actually goes towards humanitarian aid; and that increasingly, the day-to-day operations of the corporation are being funded by volunteers. Which makes sense, of course, if you have a corporation. Why put all your money into payroll when you could just have "missionaries" doing data entry?
"So again, in the 1980s they began to move toward a volunteer based model of running the operations of the corporate side of things and of course this is drawing on the church side to make it so the corporate side doesn't have the expenses that it used to have. Now the problem is of course they're not doing this because they don't have any money. They're doing it because it makes sense financially to free up more and more capital.
"And so the question now is, 'what is going on with all this money?' If the expenses of the day-to-day operation are continually being driven down, then what is really going on with the rest of the money?
"It is being invested. For the most part, in real estate throughout the 1990s and the previous decade which was part of the building spree of the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop. But also in Wells Fargo mortgage backed securities and CitiBank and many other major funds which I document in the book. You're talking about a lot of money that is being invested in things which, again, it makes sense if you're a business to do this kind of thing, of course. And it makes sense maybe for an individual to invest in these funds that are going to be bringing back a lot of money.
"But the question that I really want to put forward in the book is, does it make sense for a religion to be doing this kind of stuff? And of course a lot of the listeners will say, 'yeah, of course,' and a lot of the listeners maybe will say, 'well, maybe it doesn't make a lot of sense.'
"In the book, I try to sort of put forward an argument as to why it doesn't necessarily make sense from a metaphysical perspective, from a cultural perspective, and even from an economic perspective."
"This is a difficult dilemma; it's one of these Faustian bargains....It's a question of a sort of means to an end. Is it acceptable for the Kingdom of God to do this dance with people who are not necessarily -who may not seem like they're directly opposed to us. Of course they're not bringing in the cannons like they did in 1857 and rolling them into Salt Lake City and keeping them pointed at the city...The exercises of power in the modern world are much gentler than they used to be. The way that Mammon works is to make it seem like it makes perfect sense to play along, and that we can do it to our advantage; that we can make a deal with, as it were, the devil.
"And I'm not saying that rich people are the devil or that Citibank is the devil. But the things that are not -that don't have an interest in building up the Kingdom of God, I believe are, of course, building up another kind of kingdom. And so the question for me is whether we can actually make these kinds of deals, and in fact whether we need to be making these kinds of deals.
"If Jesus tells us to consider the Lilies of the field, maybe we ought to be considering the lilies of the field rather than investing our funds in a sort of lily-gilding operation that is going to yield an 8% profit for the next fifty years.
"In other words, is it right to build a foundation of security that is tied to the global economy? Or should we be trying to do something which is a little more in line with what I read Joseph Smith was trying to do, which is create an order of people who are independent as much as possible from the operations of the world because the world is fallen? It's in a state of sin, and for us to try to profit from the sin is a very dangerous proposition from my perspective."
The Full interview is available at Mormon Stories Podcast.*****"If there is sort of a run on sand, I guess you could build your house on sand and hope that you can flip it to the next guy before the sand really falls out from under you. But if 2008 is any kind of indicator, [the Church] didn't move from the sand quite fast enough and I think they lost a pile of cash in the stock market as apparently a lot of people did.
"So again, if we were to invest strictly in things like humans, and provide for the needs of the poor rather than, say, building a high-end retail establishment in downtown Salt Lake City, is that a bad financial decision? Well, who can say one way or the other? Is [providing for the needs of the poor] a good spiritual decision? I'd say yes.
"Is it a good spiritual decision to build a multi-billion dollar mall? I'd sort of leave that up to the readers to try to see where Jesus raised that kind of capital in order to build a mall in downtown Jerusalem so that he could have a foundation for building up his church."
Below is a short video I came across on Youtube. I don't know who is responsible for creating this video, but if he or she will step forward I will happily give credit:
Next entry: "Bad Science, Weird Science, and Strange Mormon Prophecy."
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