The Common Good
November 2008

Nightmare on Wall Street

by Jim Wallis | November 2008

Wall Street's collapse is the logical consequence of the economic philosophy that governs America.

A telling word emerged in commentary about the collapse of the financial markets this fall—greed. It’s an old concept, and one with deep moral roots. Even venerable establishment economists such as Robert Samuelson said, “Greed and fear, which routinely govern financial markets, have seeded this global crisis. ... short-term rewards blinded them to the long-term dangers.”

The people on top of the American economy get rich whether they make good or bad business decisions, but their bad choices always make workers and consumers suffer. Prudent investment has been replaced with reckless financial gambling, creating what some have called a “casino economy,” where Wall Street high rollers absorb the winnings while leaving catastrophic risks to be borne—as now—by everyone in the economy. And the inordinate level of benefits accruing to top CEOs and financial managers—especially as the wages of average workers continue to decline—has become one of the greatest moral travesties of our time.

In the search for blame, some say greed and some say deregulation. Both are right. The financial collapse of Wall Street is the fiscal consequence of the economic philosophy that now governs America—that markets are always good and government is always bad. But it is also the moral consequence of greed, where private profit prevails over the concept of the common good. The American economy is often rooted in unbridled materialism, a culture that continues to extol greed, a false standard of values that puts short-term profits over societal health, and a distorted calculus that measures human worth by personal income instead of character, integrity, and generosity.

Americans have a love-hate relationship with government and business. The climate seems to shift between an “anything goes” mentality and stricter government regulation. The excesses of the 1920s, leading to the Great Depression, were followed by the reforms of Franklin Roosevelt.

The entrepreneurial spirit and social innovation fostered by a market economy has benefited many and should not be overly encumbered by unnecessary or stifling regulations. But left to its own devices and human weakness (let’s call it sin), the market too often disintegrates into greed and corruption, as the Wall Street financial collapse painfully reveals. Capitalism needs rules, or it easily becomes destructive. A healthy, balanced relationship between free enterprise, on the one hand, and public accountability and regulation, on the other, is morally and practically essential. Govern­ment should encourage innovation, but it must also limit greed.

COKIE ROBERTS, on ABC’s This Week, offered an appropriate judgment on those responsible for this fall’s financial debacle: “I’d like to see the CEOs of these companies marched down Wall Street in sackcloth and ashes.” Perhaps God’s own message to Wall Street can be found in the words of Micah: “Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! ... They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud a man of his home, a fellowman of his inheritance. Therefore, the Lord says: ‘I am planning disaster against this people, from which you cannot save yourselves.’”

The behavior of too many on Wall Street is a violation of biblical ethics. The teachings of Christianity and other faiths condemn the greed, selfishness, willful blindness, and cheating that have been revealed in corporate behavior for decades and denounce the callous mistreatment of employees.

The strongest critics of the Wall Street gamblers call it putting self-interest above the public interest; the Bible would call it a sin. I don’t know about the church- going habits of the nation’s top financial managers, but if they do attend services, I wonder if they ever hear a religious word about the practices of arranging huge personal bonuses and escape hatches while destroying the lives of people who work for them or invest in their companies. We now need wisdom from the economists, prudence from the business community, and renewal courses on the common good from the nation’s religious leaders.

It’s time for the pulpit to speak—for the religious community to bring the Word of God to bear on the moral issues of the American economy. The Bible speaks of such things from beginning to end, so why not our pastors and preachers?

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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