BH: Most people I know today are feeling the pinch of the economy: everything from concerns about the job losses and retirement portfolios to the increasing cost of food. What would you tell someone in their 20s and 30s who finds him or herself facing our generation’s first real economic crisis?
JMB: Unless the young person really has disposable income, my advice would be to not live on credit, pay your credit card bills off, focus more on saving and try to build up a nest egg of 3 to 6 months, in case you do find yourself between jobs. To get the economy running again, there needs to be spending, but for a young person without much money, my advice would be to save.
BH: The government just bailed out some investment companies. I know many of my friends felt that this was a wrong move. Why didn’t the government first bailout homeowners who had lost their homes? Was it the ethical choice for our Congress to make?
TS: It seems clear even to a non-economist like me that a disaster on Wall Street could potentially have horrendous implications on Main Street, as pundits and political candidates alike have put it. Hence the bailout is probably justified. I, however, share the suspicion of your friends. One gets the feeling, as Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, put it in a Daily Show interview last month, that what we are experiencing is Free Market capitalism for everyday folks (suffer the market and lose your home) and a brand of socialism for those who control the financial markets (huge bailouts). Was it the right choice? I’m not sure. I do think it was an inevitable choice given the structure of the economy; none of us are outside of it. I think it is legitimate, however, to question the priority of the government aid. Some help has been forthcoming for homeowners, though the efforts don’t appear to some of us to be as robust as the efforts to bail out Wall Street. A Biblical critique of this… would be simple. Concern for the most vulnerable has not guided government action, or at least so it appears.
BH: President Elect Obama has promised no increase in taxes for 95 percent of the population, but an increase in taxes for the wealthiest members of our country. What is your opinion on this potential policy?
Do I think those that make $250,000 or more should have their tax cuts expire that Mr. Bush put into place? Yes, because those who do well and have more than they need, have a responsibility to care for those who don’t. Does it mean that some people may get hand outs who don’t deserve it? Yes, but on the whole most people receiving aid need that help and as a society, we should care for them. — J. Michael Brown
JMB: Do I think those that make $250,000 or more should have their tax cuts expire that Mr. Bush put into place? Yes, because those who do well and have more than they need, have a responsibility to care for those who don’t. Does it mean that some people may get hand outs who don’t deserve it? Yes, but on the whole most people receiving aid need that help and as a society, we should care for them.
BH: Last month, Warren Buffett bought $5 billion of stock in Goldman Sachs. As long as their company remains stable, it will give him a huge increase in wealth in the coming years. How much is too much? Can a Christian ever have too much wealth? Where does one stop?
JMB : I don’t think the amount of wealth one has is a measure of their Christianity. What is to be examined is how one accomplished that wealth and what is to be done once they have it. What will you do with it? That’s the question.
TS: After being asked how much money is enough, John D. Rockefeller supposedly once famously quipped, “just one dollar more.” Will Buffett make a lot of money? Probably. What he does with that money, what kind of steward he is of it, is another question, and it is one we all must grapple with whatever level of material resources we might possess… the New Testament, of course, famously states that money is the “root” cause of all evil, not evil itself (1 Timothy 6:10). For folks with some means, that is, for wealthy and middle class folks, however, there’s a real temptation to latch on to this sort of insight as a way of justifying our seeking and hoarding great wealth in the face of a world of great need. What this misses is what our moral traditions, like the Book of Proverbs, I think were actually trying to teach, namely that money itself may not be evil, but its possession and the pursuit of it forms a real danger to the moral life. This is because it is so desirable and valuable, and hence the temptation is always there to let it, and not the Divine or the bonds of genuine and just human community, attempt to secure for us well-being and security.
BH: Do you think people in the finance and credit markets have learned their lesson?
JMB: My gut reaction is that I hope so…. There is a call for regulation in response to the crisis but you don’t want it to stifle creativity. Part of what makes America really successful and good is its creativity in the way that it makes wealth and capital. I fundamentally believe in a free market system so I’d hate to see a system stifle entrepreneurship. But we do need a system that holds values, too. Values that people of all religions hold dear.