Immoral People, Broken Markets, Christian Freedom

[1] It might take the worst financial crisis in eighty years, but it seems that the message is finally sinking in: markets are not moral. However, it is unfortunate that such a realization is needed at all. Characterization of the “the market’s” actions or changing moods may just be just figures of speech, but this way of speaking about the market confers on it a kind of personhood, and perhaps leads us to forget that “the market” does not have agency on its own—moral or otherwise.

[2] Attributing volition to the market creates fatalism about “the way things are,” which works against social change and absolves those who are actually responsible. “The market” does not make choices about who should be well-fed and who should starve, whose children should graduate from ivy-league schools and whose should wait tables at night to pay for classes at the local community college, who will receive year-end bonuses and who will receive pink slips. The market does not make choices between right and wrong—people do.

[3] So while moral evaluation of market-based economics as a philosophy is appropriate and necessary, externalizing blame for our financial woes on some nebulous force or “invisible hand” gives the market far too much credit (or blame, as the case may be). Although the global market might be greater than the sum of its parts, it is still – at bottom – composed of the collective actions of people – consumers, investors, CEOs, small business owners, brokers, lenders, borrowers – governed by a set of policies and regulations, which are proposed, debated, and passed by policy makers, elected officials, and corporate boards. Complex as this is for most of us to grasp, it should not require a doctorate or a witch doctor to divine what went wrong and how we might fix it.

Where We Went Wrong

[4] So where did things go wrong? The federal government played a role in the financial crisis, primarily due to years of deregulation and turning a blind eye to the excesses of Wall Street. Far from a “free market,” our financial sector operates under a web of rules and regulations, which can be designed to ensure accountability or favor speculation. Clearly, our current policies skew toward the latter. Once the meltdown began, the government failed to improve on its record, choosing to hastily throw literally hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars at the private financial sector with few meaningful strings attached, apparently deciding that it would be better to ask the forgiveness of America for failing to rein in Wall Street than the permission to do it right. With this track record, it didn’t take a congressional hearing to tell the average person what we already could have guessed – without any accountability, the banks took those large infusions of cash and essentially stockpiled the money for themselves, including offering lavish bonuses to executives despite posting losses, with little benefit to the frozen credit markets or for regular people. Certainly, our policy-makers bear responsibility.

[5] Equally as stunning as Washington’s inept rush to reward those who caused the crisis was the hubris of financial executives, who remained noticeably quiet as the house of cards tumbled—except when asking Washington for taxpayer-funded lifelines or justifying lavish retreats or executive bonuses despite posting huge losses. The exact excesses and failures of the financial sector and its captains will be told in greater detail in other places, but all levels of the financial sector require on-going scrutiny, new measures of accountability, and prosecution when necessary.

[6] The reproachable behavior of the financial sector might only be trumped by those who chose to bypass the guilt of Wall Street and instead lay blame for the crisis at the feet of the poor. The lack of regulation, elaborate financial engineering, predatory lending, and the complicity of credit rating agencies apparently notwithstanding, “free market” pundits, Wall Street hacks, and misguided politicians did what powerful people throughout history do when their interests and ideas are threatened: localize the problem in a politically and financially powerless “other.” In other words, when in doubt, blame the poor. While the idea that the poor bullied banks and brokers into writing hundreds of billions of subprime loans in just a few year span shouldn’t even pass the laugh test, it was a staple talking point for some intent on shifting blame. At most, it seems that the poor were guilty of a desire to join the “ownership society” (promoted by our politicians and public policy), hastened in no small part by unscrupulous lenders incentivized to trawl low-income and minority neighborhoods, getting borrowers into high-interest loans with complex features and ample fine print, even for those borrowers who qualified for more traditional financial products. Our financial sector and those who defended them bear responsibility.

[7] However, the rest of us are not beyond reproach in this financial madness. Andrew Bacevich’s masterful work, The Limits of Power, offers a penetrating critique of our warped American ethos, and with it, a window into our own complicity in this mess. He writes,

If one were to choose a single word to characterize that [American] identity, it would have to be more. For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on the relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors.

The proof, he argues, is in the pudding. Personal savings averaged an impressive 8-10 percent of disposable income during most of the post-World War II era, but in 1985, that rate began a gradual slide to zero, dropping below zero in 2005. This precipitous drop in savings corresponded with increased access to consumer credit and deepening personal debt, such that by the 21st century, American household debt exceeded household income. Americans were collectively spending more than they earned. While there is nuance beneath these numbers, there is no getting around the fact that many Americans are simply living beyond their means. While this financial crisis has pulled back the curtain on greed of historic proportions, Wall Street executives have only been acting out on a grand scale what many Americans have been practicing in their own lives and families. Happiness has been reinterpreted as consumption, and moderation, simplicity, and responsibility have become refuges of last resort.

The Way Forward

[8] If this is our condition, what is the remedy? Thankfully, we have at the core of Lutheran ethics the necessary resources to offer an alternative to the American disposition of endless growth, consumption, and excess, if we have ears to hear. Any quest for answers should start where our faith does: human sin. Written almost five hundred years before financial engineers dreamed up credit default swaps, the Augsburg Confession declared: “since the fall of Adam all men begotten in the natural way are born with sin.” A more contemporary expression of this comes in the liturgical confession we say each week: “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” The ELCA’s social statement on economic life, Economic Life: Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All, wisely makes this same diagnosis: “As a church we confess that we are in bondage to sin and submit too readily to the idols and injustices of economic life.” We must start with a realistic appraisal of our sinfulness.

[9] Next, we must make things right in ways that acknowledge this sinful condition. In the realm of public policy, much of the destruction that was wrought was due to lack of checks on human greed, so the solutions must remedy those excesses and provide true accountability. We need market reform, regulatory reform, and housing market reform. We must also do right by the many victims of this crisis, not least of which are those now saddled with mortgages they cannot understand or afford. In broad terms, we must chart a course forward in our public policy that upholds the common good while taking the corruption of money and power seriously.

[10] Finally, we should embrace a vision of true freedom. Freedom for the Christian is a freedom to serve and to seek the good of others. As Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” It is no small matter that Luther places the Christian in the role of actor, of moral agent. The market does not have agency, so it is not going to repent and seek to find a new, faithful way forward. It is even dubious to expect Wall Street or Washington to do so without great prodding. However, the community of believers is perfectly placed to lead the way forward in redefining responsible freedom in an age of consumption and self-indulgence. Fifty years ago, Reinhold Niebuhr offered this admonition: “The trustful acceptance of false solutions for our perplexing problems adds a touch of pathos to the tragedy of our age.” May the church of Christ heed this word and refuse anything but the most faithful solutions to the greatest challenges of our time.

Robert D. Francis

Robert D. Francis is the Director of Advocacy and Policy for Lutheran Services in America.