The efforts to try to burnish the image of bankers have gone from being unconvincing to ridiculous. I am certain we will see Jon Stewart comment on the latest twist, of trying to claim that God wants banks (and therefore bankers) to make a lot of money.
Since Calvinism is the de facto religion of America, equating wealth with virtue would normally make perfect sense. But one of my colleagues, who is thinking about writing a book on Christianity and capitalism, points out that God as depicted in the Bible is not a very good steward of the planet. He regularly uses brimstone, floods, earthquakes, plagues, and whatnot. And there aren’t offsetting scenes of acts of nature conservancy. So if man was created in God’s image, and God seems to have a bit of an appetite for destruction, perhaps the God-invokers are barking up the wrong tree. They might instead consider passing themselves off as mere vessels of Divine will in helping make bad things happen, that the people are who are suffering, in good Calvinist logic, clearly must be sinners somehow, even if it is not obvious what they did wrong.
But the defenses we get instead are more than a bit twisted, at least as reported in Bloomberg:
Barclays Plc Chief Executive Officer John Varley stood at the wooden lectern in St. Martin-in-the- Fields on London’s Trafalgar Square last night and told the packed pews of the church that “profit is not satanic.”
The 53-year-old head of Britain’s second-biggest bank said banks are the “backbone” of the economy. Rewarding high- performing bankers with more pay doesn’t conflict with Christian values, he said. Varley was paid 1.08 million pounds ($1.77 million) and no bonus in 2008….
“Is Christianity and banking compatible? Yes,” he said in an interview after the speech in the 283-year-old church. “And is Christianity and fair reward compatible? Yes.”
Yves here. Whoa! I will agree that banking is probably not Satanic, but not being on a first name basis with him, I could be wrong here. “Satanic” leads to images of ritual sacrifice of babies, and I don’t think the banking industry is into that,. However, many readers were put off by the idea of securitizing life settlements. That occurs when the holder of a life insurance policy is bought out by a third party who continues paying the premiums, speculating that they will die on some sort of actuarially-determined timetable. Of course, if the investor is proven wrong, and the people whose lives he is now insuring live longer than expected, he makes less money and has reason to want them to die, and could resort to trying to speed up the inevitable.
And regardless of your views of Satanic practice, saying something is “not Satanic” is far from saying it is not sinful, or simply morally dubious. I thought that the Seven Deadly Sins were part of the Catholic canon. Seems to me modern bankers practice every one except for sloth.
As I dimly recall (I must confess I received no religious instruction growing up, but you can’t avoid picking up snippets here and there), Jesus did say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Bankers don’t have to become rich, that it not inherent to banking, but it does seem to be the point of the exercise and is occurring much more frequently than it used to. However, I have also been told that the Eye of the Needle was the smallest gate into Jerusalem, and a camel could go through it, but only if it crawled on its knees, which is difficult for them. Either way, this argument about “compatibility” is awfully strained.
Saying that banks are the “backbone” of the economy is also not persuasive. Banks should be a support function; the backbone metaphor, even if true, says the structure of the economy is not sound. And the statement implies that God wants a strong economy. My impression is that the Bible is pretty silent on that topic.
Of course, you could also turn this argument on its head. If God really did want banks to make money, they have been really really bad at it! How many years of earnings were torched in the crisis? Certainly everything since 2003. And then the banks should properly be charged for all the losses their messes created in the real economy. So the people who ran those banks should not expect to be well treated on Judgement Day, no matter how you look at their divine mission.
Then we have this doozy:
“The injunction of Jesus to love others as ourselves is an endorsement of self-interest,” Goldman’s [Brian] Griffiths said Oct. 20, his voice echoing around the gold-mosaic walls of St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose 365-feet-high dome towers over the City, London’s financial district. “We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieving greater prosperity and opportunity for all.”
Yves again. This is the most brazen example of Newspeak I have ever seen. The remark Griffith cited is against self-interest, it’s a clear and well known instruction to put other people’s interest on the same footing as your own, to be at least fair, if not to go out of your way to be fair. But all Griffiths pays attention to is the self love part, ignores the rest, and acts as if he can brazen his way into getting others to buy his obviously warped reading.
I think they must put something in the water at Goldman these days. The firm seems to be incapable of reasoning any more, and instead reverts increasingly to patent examples of self-serving, intelligence-insulting palaver, which to anyone with an operating brain cell looks narcissistic. Not only is the only thing that matters is what is good for Goldman, but the people at the firm are so deeply inculcated that they assume that the rest of the world recognizes their superiority and privileged claim on everything, so they no longer even bother indulging the idea that other people might have rights too.
Although JP Morgan (so far) has not invoked God to defend its conduct, by any standards it is pretty dubious. It was still trying to extract blood from a turnip in Jefferson County, Alabama, by trying to extract $647 million in termination fees on interest rate swaps. Those swaps were subordinate to $3.2 billion in bonds that the county clearly cannot pay. But did JP Morgan fold up its tent and go home? No, it had been litigating, and it was only an SEC suit that led the bank to relent, and not only drop its claims but pay a total of $75 million in penalities to local government entities. That is cold comfort for Jefferson County, since it is still on the hook for the bonds that were part of the deal that JP Morgan helped structure.
But as reader Marshall Auerback reminds us, Shakespeare was onto the bankers long ago. From the Merchant of Venice:
Mark you this, Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!