Acton Institute Powerblog

Prophet Jim Wallis Explains the Doctrine of Coercive Repentance

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

In a new column on Sojourners, Prophet Jim Wallis reveals that Wall Street financiers are coming to him for confession, sometimes skulking along darkened streets to hide their shame:

Some come like Nicodemus – a religious leader who came to talk to Jesus in private – at night. Many have felt remorseful about what happened on Wall Street and how it has hurt so many people. They describe the behavior in their profession with words such as “greedy,” “risky,” or “reckless.” These business and banking leaders do feel sorry, but repentance means that remorse must be coupled with a change in the behaviors that led to the problems.

The Prophet, who can read their very thoughts (“repentance and accountability were far from their minds”), bids them to change their ways and reminds them about God and Mammon. But it is not so much a conversion of hearts and minds Wallis is asking for, as it is the divine wrath of Washington regulators. His three-point plan (emphasis mine):

First, provide transparency and accountability. Given the human condition and the many temptations of money, we need transparency and accountability in financial markets and instruments, including high-risk and questionable ones such as the now infamous “derivatives.” To protect the common good, we need to enact greater regulation and oversight of all elements of the banking industry.

Second, provide consumer protection. Any pastor can now tell you stories of how parishioners were mistreated, cheated, and damaged by current banking practices. Many clergy strongly favor protecting consumers from predatory financial practices. They want a strong independent Consumer Finance Protection Agency, with jurisdiction and enforcement power over all companies in the financial sector, in order to protect people from fraudulent, misleading, and abusive practices.

Third, limit size and risk, so banks are no longer too big to fail – and are bailed out at public expense. This means setting limits on the size of financial institutions and the risks they can take. Ban bank ownership of private investment funds, and establish an orderly process to dissolve a failing bank, in order to avoid future taxpayer bailouts. Give a stronger voice to shareholders and investors in institutional practices and policies – including determining the executive compensation of companies, and the now infamous bank executive bonuses.

A much more intelligent and balanced analysis of the financial crisis was published yesterday by Russ Roberts, a professor of economics at George Mason University and a scholar at the Mercatus Center. Note the complete lack of cheap moralizing that informs so much of Wallis’ economic “analysis.” This is from the introduction to Roberts’ “Gambling with Other People’s Money”:

Beginning in the mid-1990s, home prices in many American cities began a decade-long climb that proved to be an irresistible opportunity for investors. Along the way, a lot of people made a great deal of money. But by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, too many of these investments turned out to be much riskier than many people had thought. Homeowners lost their houses, financial institutions imploded, and the entire financial system was in turmoil.

How did this happen? Whose fault was it? Some blame capitalism for being inherently unstable. Some blame Wall Street for its greed, hubris, and stupidity. But greed, hubris, and stupidity are always with us. What changed in recent years that created such a destructive set of decisions that culminated in the collapse of the housing market and the financial system?

In this paper, I argue that public-policy decisions have perverted the incentives that naturally create stability in financial markets and the market for housing. Over the last three decades, government policy has coddled creditors, reducing the risk they face from financing bad investments. Not surprisingly, this encouraged risky investments financed by borrowed money. The increasing use of debt mixed with housing policy, monetary policy, and tax policy crippled the housing market and the financial sector. Wall Street is not blameless in this debacle. It lobbied for the policy decisions that created the mess.

In the United States we like to believe we are a capitalist society based on individual responsibility. But we are what we do. Not what we say we are. Not what we wish to be. But what we do. And what we do in the United States is make it easy to gamble with other people’s money—particularly borrowed money—by making sure that almost everybody who makes bad loans gets his money back anyway. The financial crisis of 2008 was a natural result of these perverse incentives. We must return to the natural incentives of profit and loss if we want to prevent future crises.

Guess who picked up the tab for this party? Yes, taxpayers:

An unpleasant but unavoidable conclusion of this paper is that Wall Street was (and remains) a giant government-sanctioned Ponzi scheme. Homebuyers borrowed money from lenders who got their money from Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and banks that borrowed money from investors who expected to be reimbursed by the politicians who took that money from taxpayers. Almost everyone made money from this deal except the group left holding the bag—the taxpayers. There is an old saying in poker: If you don’t know who the sucker is at the table, it’s probably you. We are the suckers. And most of us didn’t even know we were sitting at the table.

Many people have placed the current mess at the doorstep of capitalism. But Milton Friedman liked to point out that capitalism is a profit and loss system. The profits encourage risk-taking. The losses encourage prudence. Government policies have made too many markets one-sided. Because of implicit government guarantees, the gains were private and the losses were public. The policies allowed people to gamble with other people’s money, and by rescuing the creditors of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, AIG, Merrill Lynch, and others, policy makers have further weakened the natural restraints of the profit and loss system. This isn’t capitalism—it is crony capitalism.

An apology for Mammon? Hardly:

— Stop enabling obscene transfers of wealth. In this crisis, average Americans have sent hundreds of billions of dollars to some of the richest people in human history. This has been done over and over again in the name of avoiding a crisis, akin to putting out every forest fire. But this only postpones the day of reckoning. Eventually a conflagration comes along that consumes everything. The better the citizenry understands this reality, the better the chance that political incentives will change. If people don’t understand it, the political incentives will stay in place. Economists play an important role in how people perceive what has happened. We should stop being the enablers of such obscene transfers of wealth by claiming they are necessary for stability.

— Excoriate, condemn, and call to account rather than praise and honor policy makers who make creditors and lenders whole. Zero cents on the dollar for bankrupt bets made by lenders and creditors would be ideal, but it is unlikely to be a credible promise. So let’s start more modestly. A ceiling of 50 cents on the dollar for creditors and lenders when the institutions they fund become insolvent is a natural place to start. Even this may be too difficult for politicians to stomach. But economists should be able to support such a move and preach its virtues.

— Rescuing rich people from the consequences of their decisions with money coming from average Americans is bad for democracy. It is bad for democracy because the Fed and the Treasury are spending trillions of dollars of taxpayer money with very little accountability or transparency. It’s bad for democracy because it means that some people have to live with the consequences of their decisions while others get rescued. That in turn creates a very destructive feedback loop of rent seeking, where losers seek government help after the fact rather than making careful decisions before the fact.

Read the entire report at the Mercatus Center.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for marketing and advertising, media relations, and print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in the news, events and corporate communications fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • John,

    Thank you for this.

    Chesterton once wrote that mystery novels were actually works of moral reflection. Orson Scott Card makes a similar observation when he says that science fiction is concerned with exploring religious themes. Economics and public policy analysis, or so I would argue, are likewise moral and religious endeavors. This is so even if the discussion does not take an explicitly (that is, confessional) form.

    Clergy especially tend to want to skip over the analysis to the moral lesson or conclusion. While understandable from one perspective to do so often does injustice not only to the practical details under discussion but also to the very moral tradition that we wish to bring to bear.

    This I think is what Wallis has done in the article you quote–he has skipped over the hardwrok analysis in favor of defending his own, highly subjective, take on the Christian moral tradition. This isn’t prophetic on his part. It is simply ideology.

    Again, thanks for this.


  • Roger McKinney

    I debated people on Wallis’ web site for a while until I realized how much contempt they have for the science of economics. Their position is that Marx was right about everything and anyone who disagrees with him is evil by definition. Marx taught Christian economics and everything they need to know is in Marx and the Bible. Along with that attitude comes Marx’s polylogism in which reason is not a universal tool but a bludgeon used by the greedy. Instead of interpreting the Bible according to sound hermeneutics, they interpret it by Marx. Wallis is a hardcore Marxist and his Marxism comes before his Christianity. I’m pretty sure he is not even evangelical, but modernist.