Greed has emerged as a unifying culprit in the current financial crisis and recession in the United States. John McCain blames the situation on “unbridled corruption and greed.” Barack Obama’s campaign has presented a plan to reform the “greed and excesses of Washington.” Not far beneath this rhetoric is the implication that both presidential candidates are ostensibly rejecting the Gordon Gekko, Wall Street mantra of “greed is good” for a more moral and less sinful worldview.
Although it is a sin, greed does have its benefits, according to Dr. Rebecca Blank, interviewed on Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. “It's greed that makes people work harder, be more productive, and helps the economy grow,” Blank says. Greed also may not have been behind every decision that led to the crisis. Blank points out that there were “a lot of people at the very beginning of this, the whole sub-prime crisis that started this off, who saw themselves as providing more funds for low-income families. They were doing a good thing.”
The problem isn’t that people don’t care about each other, Rabbi Michael Lerner writes for Tikkun, it’s that people “don't feel ready to trust their own desires and think that they would just be making a fool of themselves to imagine a world in which people really took care of each other.” Americans continue to be generous right now, even when surrounded by excess and greed. People need to acknowledge and cultivate that altruistic impulse in others, instead of giving up on the government and the market as inherently evil.
The American economy has benefited millions of people, while tapping into a selfish and materialistic impulse inside of humans at the same time. Some people believe that the free market will work itself out on its own, but Jim Wallis writes on the God’s Politics blog, “left to its own devices and human weakness (let’s call it sin), the market too often disintegrates into greed and corruption, as the Wall Street financial collapse painfully reveals.” The government, according to Wallis, must figure out a way to encourage innovation, but reign in the greed.
It’s up to the American people to push elected officials in that direction, toward good regulation and away from unbridled greed. Too often, according to Lerner, politicians keep the “discussion in vague and technocratic terms that avoid the central ethical issues that are always at the heart of the economy.” Lerner writes that politicians, including Obama, need to directly address the moral and ethical issues facing the country, not just the economic ones.