Catholic Voices

By Benjamin D. Grizzle

Although the Occupy Wall Street movement aspires to offer a transformational critique of the global economy, it suffers from an incoherent worldview lacking connection to the nourishing roots of theology and economic history. One of God’s prevailing concerns in Scripture, pragmatically elaborating on salvation itself, is that his people might understand the principles of good stewardship: long inventories of goods and treasure crowd the Old Testament histories; prophet after prophet rails against the way God’s people misappropriate their spiritual and material inheritance; and Jesus’ parables are chockablock with commercial metaphors about talents, servants, managers, workers, wages. Even the eschatology of sin and redemption is articulated in commercial terms in Proverbs 10 and Romans 6: “Sin pays its servants: the wage is death” (J.B. Phillips).

We know God’s character is one of perfect justice and total grace, which poses a pragmatic challenge to those of us operating in financial markets: In an unjust world of limited resources, how do we work to incarnate redemptive kingdom principles in the way we create and manage wealth?

I suspect many culturally exposed but less than biblically fluent Christians might be surprised that the kingdom of God described in Scripture is not an egalitarian utopia. Yes, there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.” But there will still be a first and a last and a seat of honor, although the seating plan may confound our worldly expectations.

While we take comfort from the parable of all servants paid equally at closing time, we cannot escape the master’s ruling in the parable of the bags of gold in Matthew 25: “To all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Jesus treats stewardship with far greater seriousness than most modern churches and governments: unproductive trees are not given tenure for occupying space in the garden, but rather cut down and thrown in the fire.

Occupiers’ primary outrage seems to be against poor stewardship. They use the language of “increasing inequality,” but more precisely they may object to the unreliable correlation between productivity and compensation. Few resented Steve Jobs his wealth, given the value created by Apple, but who does not resent golden parachutes paid out to senior executives of unprofitable, much less failed, companies? Occupiers will garner powerful and unexpected allies — big shareholders, hedge funds, and activist investors — if they use this language of just stewardship rather than a resentful Robin Hood rhetoric.

In trying to uncover the causes of today’s crisis, occupiers would also do well to apply their axe to the roots of the problem, which an even cursory study of economic history would reveal is hardly the prominent branch of banker malevolence. During the last Great Depression, people and governments wanted to consume more and grow faster than their productivity allowed. If you are unwilling to accept the financial limits of your own productivity, you borrow. But from whom? Contrary to populist belief, the private sector is not generally eager to lend to parties lacking income, assets or collateral. Consequently, ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt created “government sponsored entities” (like Fannie Mae), GSEs and their ballooning balance sheets have encouraged new loans to parties the “greedy banks” would not generally have lent to of their own volition. These GSEs promise to buy much of the debt generated by politically evocative but generally not creditworthy groups — veterans, students, low-income and first-time homebuyers, farmers in a rapidly industrializing economy. While a case can certainly be made for using government to encourage constructive behavior or to help disadvantaged groups, there are ways to do this without so profoundly distorting the economy.

Because of this mechanism for extending private consumption beyond the limits of individuals’ productivity, it was only a matter of time until Americans were not producing enough of what other countries wanted to buy or own. And so we had to begin consuming and investing in their resources, which led to our current massive budget, trade, and account deficits. The dollar’s dramatic devaluation and hyper-inflation in the 1970s should have been a wakeup call that we had dangerously eroded the “full faith and credit” of the world in our nation. But the pattern of endless entitlement expansion, periodic discretionary military intervention, and increasing idolatry and encouragement of private sector consumption has continued to the point where we are today: a cancer of debt permeates most of society, and at least two generations of people are confused by, and even angry at, the suggestion that a person or nation’s quality of life be constrained by its ability to pay for the cost of its lifestyle.

Governments are no more moral, responsible, or capable than their citizens. While I lay the toxic cycle of moral hazard squarely at the feet of governments for distorting the fierce accountability of the market, that leaves the finger of blame pointing uncomfortably back at all of us who elected our leaders, spent money we didn’t have, and borrowed money on a promise we had no plan or ability to keep. Bankers may be the 1 percent, but they are hardly tyrants. Rather, they were responding to the rapacious demands of four generations of citizens living beyond their means — a historical perspective, and humble admission, conspicuously lacking among the occupiers. The moral suasion of the occupiers would increase geometrically if they were to point even a single finger at the one group they can change: themselves, the 99 percent they claim to represent.

For occupiers to produce the lasting cultural shift I believe many truly desire, they must graft themselves to the deep roots of the biblical prophetic tradition, by reminding all of us — the 100 percent — of our role in laying the foundations of this crisis. Then, casting in stark terms the consequences of continued complacency, they should deploy the language of stewardship to outline a practicable alternative to the abyss into which we now stare: lest we be found asleep when the master returns, or cast fruitless into the fire for our carelessness with what we were entrusted.

Benjamin D. Grizzle, who has worked in finance for nearly nine years, leads a macro-market sales team in London and is warden of a Church of England mission.