A sign flashed at the Occupy Wall Street protest reads "People Before Profits." It is an effective sign. Who could support Profits Before People? Some Wall Street employees have apparently responded sympathetically to the protestors, trying to understand their demands. But part of the power of the protest lies in its ambiguity. Americans are angry about many issues today. In such a climate it may be more strategic to focus on the common anger than on specificities.
The protests are centered on Wall Street because they target political corruption in the finance industry. But the world of finance is very complex. Part of the problem is that it became too complex, so complex that even the financiers themselves couldn't understand the implications or robustness of the financial derivatives they were trading, or even how to properly price them. (They seemed to be particularly challenged with pricing derivatives of sub-prime mortgages.)
The problems with our financial system are complex; the solutions are complex. Overhauling the incentives within our financial institutions is far more challenging than the protestors understand, or perhaps would admit even if they did. As a graduate student at Berkeley, I was a teaching assistant for Christina Romer, a macroeconomist who arguably understands economic recessions better than anyone on the planet. She and Larry Summers, another brilliant economist, spent two grueling years as President Obama's chief economic advisors, trying to untangle the mess. Bottom line to protestors: If Christina struggles with it, you don't understand it.
Like most protests, the Occupy Wall Street folks are better at identifying something that is wrong than identifying a way forward that is right. But even if the protestors don't understand much about financial economics, they have a clear sense that something is wrong. That something, however, lies deeper than the behavior of a relative handful of Wall Street moguls. That something, I believe, is a sense of material entitlement that has crept into the American psyche. This sense of material entitlement has infected our personal choices, our politics, and our financial system.
The crisis has spiritual roots. Jesus warns his followers, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15, NIV). But a syncretistic form of Christianity has emerged in our country, a syncretism that mingles genuine New Testament Christianity with the consumer materialism of the American Dream.
How has this religious syncretism contributed to the financial crisis? First, our sense of material entitlement has had a profound impact on the financial choices of American families. As the stock market began to peak after the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, money began to flood into the real estate market, further inflating home prices which had already reached historic highs. With home prices skyrocketing, the coveted American dream of home ownership for many seemed to be slipping away. In response, families over-extended. In the home-ownership feeding frenzy, they bought houses beyond their means on easy credit terms, which the laxly regulated financial industry was too eager to provide.
A sophisticated market economy cannot function without credit. Credit is to an economy what oil is to an engine. It lubricates frictions between moving parts, allowing the machine to work. Without oil, an engine seizes up and fails; without credit, a market economy seizes up and fails. But credit also allows for the purchase of goods and assets that have not yet been earned, borrowing against earnings in the future.