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.
The widespread availability of zero-down-payment mortgages, easy loan approval, and low interest rates fueled a speculative bubble, financed by those who stood to make a quick financial gain from the quest of many for a share of the American dream—whether home buyers could afford these homes or not.
Although it seemed impossible at the time, the bubble was certain to pop. And as their homes slowly sank under water (mortgage debt exceeding the home price), these American families shook the dust off their feet and walked away from their homes and their debt obligations. By doing this, American families collectively saddled banks with mountains of bad debt; holders of sub-prime mortgage instruments ended up with file cabinets of worthless commercial paper.
While our personal choices were responsible for the crisis, so were our institutions. We live in a democracy. Democracies are remarkably efficient at creating institutions reflecting the values of their citizens. Good political and economic institutions act as a check against the worst impulses of our fallen nature and foster sustainable economic growth and the common good. In contrast, the institutions Americans asked politicians to build were designed to promote the accumulation of personal material wealth. As constructed, they were incapable of regulating our collective temptation for the fast buck.
The protestors would like to see the financiers thrown in jail. But because the institutions we asked our politicians to construct were so lax, even as the financiers lost billions of dollars for their clients and destabilized the world economy, few of them actually committed any crime for which they can be legally punished.
Both sides of the political aisle are to blame for the Great Recession and its repercussions on the American (and world) economy. Republicans recycled the old Reagan mantra of the 1980s that "government is the problem, not the solution," blindly applying it to our financial regulatory institutions while failing to recognize that even the most free-market economists point to the need for careful government regulation of the financial industry. In doing so, they let the Labrador off the leash. But seeking to appease their own constituents, Democrats pressured quasi-government lenders Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to offer easy loan terms to Americans of modest incomes, relieving them of the self-discipline of having to save for an adequate down payment on a house.
This spirit of entitlement in America also lies at the root of our national debt problem, a crisis exacerbated by the housing and finance meltdowns. Make no mistake: our national debt problem is a moral problem. Here again we feel entitled to have what we cannot afford, even if we force our children to pick up the tab. Note that the budgetary term entitlements has become a central issue, spending that we obviously cannot afford but has been enshrined in our national budget. So we finance our entitlements by borrowing from the Chinese, who now hold $1.2 trillion (yes, that's with a t) in U.S. treasury bills.
Our financial crisis is a crisis in American values for which we all share blame.
The Occupy Wall Street movement shares more than it would like to admit with the Tea Party, its populist complement on the right. Rather than taking the approach of self-reflection and personal ownership of sin that Jesus imparts to his followers, each of these movements seeks to externalize blame onto a culpable Other. It is Immigrants or Muslims or Obamacare or Greedy Corporations or Corrupt Wall Street Financiers who are to blame for our problems. But obviously not … Us.
In this spirit, Occupy Wall Street protest signs seek to ignite a revolution of the 99 percent against the (richest) 1 percent, who are responsible for our troubles. Christians of course are forbidden from supporting this kind of worldview. The dissipation that exists in our country, unfortunately, has not been confined to 1 percent of the population. Christianity teaches us that all of us stand as imperfect, self-absorbed, broken people, each of us a contributor to the problems of the world in our own, creative way.
Political action has often served in our country as a lazy shortcut around the harder work of evangelization. If we are unconvincing in changing people's thinking, we attempt to control their behavior through the political process. A necessary step forward out of our economic crisis is national repentance from a spirit of entitlement. We must turn away from this spirit of entitlement toward an ethic of frugality, honesty, and transparency in our individual lives and in the design of our institutions. This is our country's best hope for creating a foundation for optimism about our collective economic future.
Bruce Wydick is Professor of Economics at the University of San Francisco and Visiting Professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.
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On Friday, Christianity Today's politics blog looked at Sojourners joining the Occupy Wall Street protests.
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