So we’ve heard a lot about “Wall Street greed” the past several years — and understandably so. The get-richer mentality fueled speculation and created gigantic bubbles in the housing and stock markets that burst in 2008.
The long-and-short of the market meltdown, as Princeton University economics professor Burton Malkiel explains, is that government lenders “securitized home loans and encouraged originators to make credit available to borrowers who could not afford to make substantial down payments.” Since these loans had implicit government backing, investment houses began to buy up scores of prime and subprime mortgages, bundle them together, and then “produced very highly rated securities … even though the underlying mortgages might be of relatively low quality or subprime.”
When the bubble burst, the housing market lost $9 trillion of its peak value, and $16 trillion in household wealth was erased. To many Americans, “Wall Street greed” was the culprit. The president, for example, inveighed against “greed and irresponsibility on Wall Street” and the “breathtaking greed” of “banks and investors.” Leading newspapers such as The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post peppered their pages with the phrase “Wall Street greed.”
Headlines such as “Greed on Wall Street Prevents Good from Happening,” “On Wall Street, a Culture of Greed Won’t Let Go” and “Wall Street’s Greed Is Fueled by Fear” dominate search returns. And underneath those headlines are scathing attacks on Wall Street’s banks, investment houses, and financiers. “Something beyond reason and beyond ordinary ambition has been feeding this runaway avarice,” explains one reporter. According to another, the financial system was “brought to the precipice by Wall Street’s greed and irresponsible risk-taking.” And in perhaps the most pointed attack on Wall Street’s “1-percenters,” a pair of Cal-Berkeley scholars bluntly concludes, “Unethical behaviors among the wealthy are as timeless and pervasive as the ethical principles that try to rein them in.”
These diagnoses and commentaries are all true, but they aren’t the whole truth.
Greed is on Every Street
Contrary to the opinion of Gordon Gekko, the notorious character in the 1987 film “Wall Street,” Christians know that greed is never good. It’s sin — plain and simple. We also know that Wall Street doesn’t have a monopoly on greed, and the poor and middle class don’t have a monopoly on virtue. As Francis Schaeffer once observed, “We are not automatically spiritual if we despise money” — or, for that matter, if we don’t have much of it.
In fact, “Main Street greed” is arguably just as culpable for our national problems as the preferred scapegoat of “Wall Street greed.” After all, what motivated most people on the Main Street end of the economic spectrum during the housing boom — the working poor who simply were not yet ready to become homeowners, the average homeowners who built “McMansions” they couldn’t afford, the house-flippers who bought with the sole intent of selling for a hefty profit, the millions of middle-class Americans who used their mushrooming home equity as collateral to open huge lines of credit, buy products they couldn’t afford, and take on debt they couldn’t repay? The answer is greed, and it has nothing to do with Wall Street.
Why do Americans owe $845 billion in credit-card debt? And why is total consumer debt in America — mortgages, car loans, credit cards, and student loans — $11.4 trillion? There are plenty of understandable and even good reasons people go into debt: medical issues, education, launching or growing a business. But there are lots of bad reasons, too, and greed is a contributing factor: greed for something newer or bigger or better or faster or sleeker or shinier — and it has nothing to do with Wall Street.
Why do we want just a little more free time, just a little less work, the last word, or the last slice of pizza? The answer is greed, and it has nothing to do with Wall Street.
Why do so many people oppose big government but then support candidates who promise “free” health care, “free” prescription medicines, “free” phones, “free” college education, “free” this, “free” that? And why do politicians make such promises? The answer, at least in part, is greed, and it has nothing to do with Wall Street.
Why are we angry when it seems the wealthy don’t “pay their fair share” and yet happily take every deduction, every break, every refund the tax code offers us? The answer is greed, perhaps mixed with a little envy, and it has nothing to do with Wall Street. By the way, those wealthy “1-percenters” on Wall Street actually pay more than their fair share of the tax bill: The top 1 percent of taxpayers pay 35 percent of federal income taxes, and the top 5 percent pay 57 percent of federal income taxes.
And why have we seen a 25-percent increase in the number of Social Security disability claims since the start of the Great Recession? In many cases, the answer is greed, and it has nothing to do with Wall Street. Make no mistake: The Social Security disability program serves an important purpose, namely helping those who are unable to earn a living due to major health problems. In a rich country like ours, there is a place for such a program. Indeed, this is the very reason for a safety net — to provide some measure of security when circumstances overwhelm us.
However, we know there wasn’t a sudden epidemic that left millions of Americans stricken with career-ending disabilities at the Great Recession’s outset. The truth is that many people who are not disabled chose to access the disability system because it would be easier than the alternative. This kind of greed is every bit as “unethical” and “breathtaking” as the Wall Street variety before the mortgage meltdown. And the fact that government sanctions this kind of Main Street greed only serves to underscore the similarities with Wall Street: In both instances, government rewards bad behavior by bailing out those who engage in it. The difference comes down to the number of zeros on the check.
Before scoffing, and before using Scripture’s injunctions about social justice to explain away this strain of Main Street greed, remember that justice works in all directions, that Scripture condemns laziness as well as materialism, and that the Lord sees one man’s envy and another’s greed as two halves of the same poisoned fruit.
Greed’s Cause and Consequence
Greed is a humanity-wide affliction. “From the least to the greatest,” the Lord declares in Jeremiah 6, “all are greedy for gain.” It may afflict some more often and more obviously than others. But just because a sin is more obvious doesn’t make it more wrong. Regardless of the address — Wall Street or Main Street — the cause and the consequence of greed are the same. The cause is selfishness, and the consequence is separation from God and from our fellow man, as Scripture reminds us from the very beginning.
The Father told Adam and Eve, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This one tree was not theirs to have, not theirs to take or pick or harvest. But in Genesis 3, Eve saw that the fruit of this tree was “good for food” and “pleasing to the eye.” Interestingly, Genesis 2 uses the same language to describe other things the Lord had created for Adam and Eve: “The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground — trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.” However, those trees were not this tree; those trees were not Adam and Eve’s; those trees were no longer “desirable” to them.
Driven by selfishness, they took what was not theirs, severing their connection to the Father and to one another. Note how Adam blamed “the woman you put here with me” when confronted by the Father. There was no “we” in Adam’s defense. So much for “flesh of my flesh.”
Greed and envy would be passed down like a genetic deformity. Greed spawned Cain’s jealous, violent rage. The Bible takes care to report that Abel sacrificed from the “firstborn” of his flock, while Cain merely brought “some of the fruits of the soil” as his offering. The implication is that Abel offered more of a sacrifice. As one scholar observes, “The contrast is not between an offering of plant life and an offering of animal life, but between a careless, thoughtless offering and a choice, generous offering.” In other words, Cain was greedy. In Hebrew, Cain is derived from the same word as “acquire” and “possess.” As Rabbi David Fohrman, a professor of biblical studies at Johns Hopkins University, has observed, “Cain the ‘acquirer’ seeks to ground himself in possessions.”
After Cain and Abel, the poison spread throughout God’s story: Jacob was greedy for Esau’s birthright; Esau was greedy for Jacob’s stew. Their covenant of greed fractured their relationship and devastated their father. David was greedy for Uriah’s wife, and it destroyed at least four lives. Judas was greedy for power and money, and it led to betrayal and brokenness. Ananias and Sapphira were greedy for place and prestige, and it literally killed them. Perhaps with their story in mind, Peter warned that even church leaders must guard against being “greedy for money.”
In the Ten Commandments, the Lord tells us not to covet anything that belongs to our neighbor. In Ecclesiastes, He declares, “Whoever loves money never has enough.” In Jeremiah, He preaches against “dishonest gain.” In Ezekiel, He condemns those who are “greedy for unjust gain.” And in Luke 12, He warns us, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” — not just Wall Street greed, not just the greed of the rich man to acquire, not just the most obvious expressions of greed but any desire for more of something than is needed, any desire for another person’s wealth or property or possessions.
The adjectives are irrelevant to God because the cause and the consequence of this sin are the same, whether we live on Main Street or Wall Street or Easy Street.
If the cause and consequence of greed are the same, so is the antidote.
Because he knew “what it is to be in need” and “what it is to have plenty,” Paul spoke with some authority on the subject of wealth, and he let us in on the secret to being content: Whether we live “in plenty or in want” — and relative to the rest of history and the rest of humanity, even the poorest Americans live in plenty — we should live for and in and through Christ. Importantly, Paul offered this advice not while studying in the comfort of Gamaliel’s classroom, but while he was in prison.
So how might we apply Paul’s advice in our lives?
We should remember our Savior is both the King of Kings and the Suffering Servant. He was a refugee child who possessed unimaginable riches; He traded a crown and streets of gold for a stable and homeless wandering. How we think of Him will affect how we think about wealth and poverty, and how we relate to the poor and the wealthy.
We should work, and we should do our best at work. “Whatever you do,” Paul exhorts, “work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”
We should spend less than we earn. Applying this simple rule of economics to our personal — and national — finances would save us much grief and worry. “The borrower is slave to the lender,” as Proverbs 22 warns.
We should understand that anytime we allow our stomach — the hungry, unsatiable self — to guide our thoughts, purchases, decisions, or bank accounts, we are succumbing to a kind of greed and replacing God with something else. The antidote is the good and satisfying fruit of the Spirit. This fruit, however, doesn’t blossom overnight.
We should keep in mind Christ’s admonition that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Interestingly, He doesn’t define what “much” is. And equally interesting, He issues this warning in response to a question from Peter, in the context of a “servant who knows the master’s will.” We’re to be a servant.
With that admonition on our hearts, we should store up treasure in heaven by sharing what we have. That’s true of the poor widow and her tiny temple tithe, the wealthy Zacchaeus and his ill-gotten riches, and all of us in between — on Wall Street and Main Street — struggling with our own varieties of greed.
Alan Dowd, a writer and researcher in Fishers, Ind., is the author of more than 600 articles covering everything from faith to philanthropy to foreign policy.
Photo illustrations by Tiffany Forrester