Everyone has heard the famous phrase, attributed to James Carville, which supposedly won the presidential election of 1992 for Bill Clinton, "It's the economy, stupid!" It's still good advice, especially as the shocking collapse of the financial markets has turned the election campaign into a much more serious and somber discussion than lipstick on pigs.
But the issue is deeper than just the economy. I would now rephrase Carville and say, "It's the morality, sinner!" And I would direct it to the people who have been making the decisions about the direction of this economy from Wall Street to Washington. Here is the morality play:
Aggressive lending to potential home-buyers using subprime and adjustable rate mortgages led to "mortgage-backed securities" being sold to investors at high returns. As housing prices dropped and interest rates rose, homeowners got caught, fell behind on payments, and millions of foreclosures followed. That resulted in the mortgage-backed assets losing value with banks unable to sell the securities. So the subprime lenders began to fail. Asset declines then spread to investment banks. We have now seen the sale of Bear Stearns brokered by the government, and last week, the government took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as mortgage defaults threatened them. Then Lehman Brothers fell into bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch was sold. Now another bail-out, AIG, the largest insurance company in the country --whose potential demise threatened the whole financial system even further.
During the height of the lending frenzy, many people got very rich, as they did during the previous technology bubble. Now with the collapse, experts say the most likely result will be further tightening of credit and lending standards for consumers and businesses. Home, retail, and business loans will become more expensive and harder to secure. And the consequences of that will spread to most of America.
In the accounts and interpretation of these events, a word is slowly entering the discussion and analysis -- greed. It's an old concept, and one with deep moral roots. Even venerable establishment economists like Robert Samuelson now say, "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 decisions, while workers and consumers are the ones who suffer from all their bad ones. Prudent investment has been replaced with reckless financial gambling in what some have called a "casino economy." And the benefits accruing to top CEOs and financial managers, especially as compared to the declining wages of average workers, 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.
The behavior of too many on Wall Street is a violation of biblical ethics; the teachings of Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths condemn the greed, selfishness, and cheating that have been revealed in corporate behavior over decades now and denounce their callous mistreatment of employees. Read your Bible.
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- or synagogue-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. 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?
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