Wall Street

'The Big Short' a Scathing Indictment of Culture of Greed

Still from 'The Big Short'
Still from The Big Short

In Matthew 6:24, Jesus reminds us that we cannot serve both God and money. Serving money above all else means that we pursue our own greed, usually at the expense of others’ well being. To serve God is to care for our brothers and sisters. To serve money is to forget that their problems exist.

Director Adam McKay’s new film The Big Short, about the events leading up to the 2008 economic collapse, is a scathing indictment of the culture of greed, shortsightedness, and self-interest that allowed millions of people to lose their jobs and homes. It’s a comedy, but one whose dark humor derives from a passionate sense of disappointment and anger.

Occupy Good Pasture

Wall St., Delpixel / Shutterstock.com
Wall St., Delpixel / Shutterstock.com

The interesting thing about human nature is that even among the oppressed, people will seek supremacy, a pecking order. We human beings have great capacity for tenderness and compassion, and we’re also the meanest things in the world! And even when we are oppressed together, we will try to find some advantage or superiority over others.

“As for you, my flock, saith the Lord, I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture?” 

In other words: Do you have to get what’s yours and at the same time mess it up for others?

COMMENTARY: Free Market Compensation or a Rigged System?

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich/RNS

In a marketplace unfettered by ethical restraint, a sense of duty, concern for others, or even basic shame, 25 hedge fund managers gave themselves a 50 percent pay boost in 2013.

Never mind that hedge funds’ performance, on average, tanked for the fifth consecutive year.

These 25 men wanted big bucks, so they took them: a total of $21 billion. All for managing wealth that someone else created and, except for a few, not managing it particularly well.

The top earner paid himself $3.5 billion for 2013.

David Brooks, Producing People, and Saving the World

Wall Street sign outside New York Stock Exchange, Stuart Monk / Shutterstock.com
Wall Street sign outside New York Stock Exchange, Stuart Monk / Shutterstock.com

New York Times op-ed columnist, David Brooks, responded, this week, to an intriguing article in the Washington Post about Jason Trigg, a recent MIT graduate, who chose a career on Wall Street as a way to redistribute wealth. 

Trigg’s plan is simple. Make lots of money. Live simply. Give lots of money. It’s not far from John Wesley’s advice of, “Earn all you can. Give all you can. Save all you can.”  Actually, it’s almost identical.

Brooks perceptively sees the dangers and pitfalls in the road ahead. Most specifically, wealth and the surrounding environment can have a corrosive effect, no matter good our intentions. Brooks writes:

…the brain is a malleable organ. Every time you do an activity, or have a thought, you are changing a piece of yourself into something slightly different than it was before. Every hour you spend with others, you become more like the people around you.

Gradually, you become a different person. If there is a large gap between your daily conduct and your core commitment, you will become more like your daily activities and less attached to your original commitment.

But, while I echo Brooks concern, I disagree with his ultimate conclusion. He goes on to argue that we should pursue careers that elicit passion (seeming to indicate that hedge funds couldn’t be a passion for some people) and that if we truly care about children in Africa, it’s best to go there – not Wall Street.

How To Reclaim A Rigged Economy

CHUCK COLLINS’ new book does exactly what an introduction to wealth inequality and all its faults needs to do: summarize without oversimplifying, and provoke dialogue and action about the urgent problem of what Collins memorably dubs the U.S.’s “inequality death spiral.”

Newcomers to the topic will find a concise overview of how wealth inequality has skyrocketed since 1980, how a small elite has changed the rules to enable still higher inequality, the many seen and unseen ways that’s a problem for us all, and the beginnings of a solution. Those more familiar with the subject can benefit from Collins’ overview, well-selected statistics, and well-honed, direct turns of phrase. Those who want deeper reading will find excellent footnotes at the end of the slim volume. Everyone will find her experience livened by the stark words Collins quotes from people identifying as part of the 99 percent—and those who are part of the 1 percent.

Collins’ many years as an advocate against inequality show in the book’s graceful balance: It emphasizes the usefulness of the 99 percent-vs.-1 percent idea, while also making clear that neither side is monolithic. He acknowledges very real economic, class, and racial divisions among the 99, but makes a compelling case against letting those differences be the basis of divide-and-conquer political strategies: “It is important that the 99 percent see that they have some important common ground, rather than be peeled into a hundred subgroupings.” And Collins, who himself grew up in the 1 percent, refuses to demonize it or to accept the demoralizing falsehood that it is unified against those below. Rather, he quotes multiple allies within the economic elite, while decrying how “a small segment of the 1 percent—with an organized base in Wall Street’s financial institutions—has worked over many decades to rig the rules of the economy” in the areas of “taxation, global trade, regulation, and public spending.”

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In Congress, a Bipartisan Effort to Hold Wall Street Accountable

Reuters reports:

"Senators are planning to introduce a bipartisan bill on Monday to give the country's securities regulator the authority to seek tougher fines for alleged Wall Street criminals.

The bill, sponsored by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed and Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, would boost the penalties that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission can seek from firms and individuals accused of wrongdoing and triple the cap on funds the agency can seek from repeat offenders.
 
'If a fine is just decimal dust for a Wall Street firm, that's not a deterrent,' Grassley said in a statement. 'A penalty should mean something.'"
 
The bill comes only months after SEC Chairwoman Mary Schapiro asked Congress to boost the agency's firepower, after a federal judge in New York tossed out two SEC settlements over paltry penalties.
 
Learn more here

The Boss's Musical Indictment

IN THE GREAT gospel and blues tradition of affirming in the negative, Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, is simultaneously a ferocious roar of righteous anger at what the captains of Wall Street did to America in 2008 and a riotous celebration of American roots. That could make it the perfect soundtrack for a spring and summer resurgence of the Occupy Wall Street campaign.

At this point a new album from Bruce Springsteen is no longer an earth-shaking event, even in the world of rock and roll. After all, the guy is 62. In the past few years, two core members of his band (organist Danny Federici and sax man Clarence Clemons) have died, not from rock-star excesses but from the old-guy ailments of skin cancer and stroke, respectively. And The Boss’ last album of new material, the 2009 Working on a Dream, was definitely subpar.

But with Wrecking Ball, Spring-steen has, for the second time within a decade, stepped forward to assume the role of a Telecaster-toting poet laureate and produced a stirring work of popular art that speaks to the depths of the national condition. The first time was with The Rising, his 2002 meditation on mortality and loss in response to 9/11. The songs in this new collection plainly declare about our ongoing economic crisis what no mainstream national political leader has been willing to say: We were robbed, and the thieves have escaped justice.

Each of Wrecking Ball’s first five tracks explicitly calls out the titans of finance for crimes against democracy and humanity. In “Jack of All Trades,” the song’s narrator even suggests that it might be a good idea to “hunt the bastards down and shoot ’em on sight.” And the sixth track is called “This Depression” with a double meaning, both economic and emotional.

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Grace on Wall Street

Wall Street sign, Vacclav / Shutterstock.com
Wall Street sign, Vacclav / Shutterstock.com

When Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman stepped up this year to defend Goldman Sachs – a company that was reeling from former employee Greg Smith’s New York Times op-ed decrying the change in culture at the company (and is now reeling from a sex-trafficking website scandal) – Gorman intimated the need for compassion by noting “there but for the grace of God go us."  

This got my attention immediately. Not because Gorman, in the lead up to the “grace of God” intimation, asked that Smith’s commentary not be emailed around by Morgan Stanley staff. Not because Gorman suggested that the New York Times was out of line for printing public opinion. 

No, Gorman got my attention because while it was out of line for Morgan Stanley’s CEO to suggest grace in considering Wall Street culture, that phrase has been a mantra of mine ever since my youth.

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