Acton Institute Powerblog

The Challenges of the Financial Calling

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CREAMIn a talk he gave at Kuyper College for the launch of the new business leadership major some years back, Vincent Bacote made an insightful observation about the “people in the room” where things were decided leading up to and during the Global Financial Crisis. What if, he wondered, the Christians who were certainly there had the resources (intellectual, moral, and spiritual) to do something about the direction that things were headed?

I also wrote about how we need to recognize that the church already occupies Wall Street (as well as all streets!) and the task of moral formation that this reality entails.

But this call to “occupy” Wall Street is perhaps as complex and challenging an arena of cultural engagement and cultural development as there is. This incisive piece from Michael Lewis outlines some of the “occupational hazards” of that particular call.

Some highlights:

  • “People are vulnerable to the incentives of their environment, and often the best a person can do, if he wants to behave in a certain manner, is to choose carefully the environment that will go to work on his character.”
  • “You may think you are going to work for Credit Suisse or Barclays, and will there join a team of professionals committed to the success of your bank, but you will soon realize that your employer is mostly just a shell for the individual ambitions of the people who inhabit it. The primary relationship of most people in big finance is not to their employer but to their market.”
  • “One of our financial sector’s most striking traits is how fiercely it resists useful, disruptive entrepreneurship that routinely upends other sectors of our economy. People in finance are paid a lot of money to disrupt every sector of our economy. But when it comes to their own sector, they are deeply wary of market-based change. And they have the resources to prevent it from happening.”
  • “As a new employee on Wall Street you might think this has nothing to do with you. You would be wrong. Your new environment’s resistance to market forces, and to the possibility of doing things differently and more efficiently, will soon become your own. When you start your career you might think you are setting out to change the world, but the world is far more likely to change you.”

The very last sentence of the piece (“So watch yourself, because no one else will.”) speaks both to the significant moral agency and virtue that is required in this context as well as the need for structures of support, assistance, and accountability, primarily that of a vibrant life of piety and reverence.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.