Recently, I have been grappling with the question: Who is “really” responsible for America’s current financial crisis?
For those on the left, it is the Republican’s fault. For those on the right, it is the Democrats’ fault.
Having just returned from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., I was inundated, as the other convention goers were, with reasons why America ended up in a financial crisis and why President Barack Obama is still the right leader to get us out of this fiscal mess.
While I am a steadfast supporter of the president, I disagree with those who solely blame his predecessor, President George W. Bush, for the financial meltdown.
In order to understand and really deal with who is the “real culprit” for America’s economic woes, we must ask ourselves the critical question: How did we get into our fiscal recession?
It’s easy to blame the other — Democrat or Republican. But at some point, we have to stop the fingering pointing and partisanship and take the hard look in the mirror: The guilty is not democrats or republicans, but rather us. Our current fiscal crisis is the result of our inability to tame our insatiable desire for “wanting more.”
Greed is the demon that we have not been able to purge from our souls. By definition, greed is “an excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves.” All of us — Black, white, brown, Republican, Democrat, etc. — have fallen victim to greed. Greed has permeated the hearts of those from Main Street to Wall Street, from the pew the pulpit, from crack house to the White House.
While subprime loan lenders, yes, preyed upon our desire to have a home that we could not afford, we were the ones who completed the application, signed the mortgage loan, and accepted the money from the bank. We cannot always blame the banks for our economic misfortunes, but must stop living beyond our means.
Indeed, Erich Fromm was right when he said, “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” Echoing a similar view, Mahatma Gandhi argued that there “is a sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed.”
So if “greed” is the demon that led us to our financial windfall, then what can and should we do?
For those who are followers of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, a socialist economy is needed to satisfy human needs and produce goods and services for our use versus for private profit. For those who are followers of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Jean-Baptiste Say and John Stuart Mill, capitalism is the philosophy that should drive our economy even if it leads a society into a financial hole.
In a collection of essays prompted by the Occupy Wall Street protests, Martin Wolf argues that capitalism “has always changed in order to survive and thrive” and that it “needs to change again.” Indeed, if Wolf is right, then how should capitalism change in America and what should it look like in the 21st century?
Luigi Zingales, a professor at the University of Chicago, contends that American capitalism has become a victim of its own success. He states that “money — regardless of the way it was obtained — ensured not only financial success but social prestige as well.” As a result, the new capitalistic mantra is: “Greed is good” rather than the “exception.”
As we continue to live in the greatest nation on earth, we must come to grips with our greed and unquenchable “desire for more.” We must ask, as Robert and Edward Skidelsky did in their book, “How Much Is Enough?”
If we claim to be patriotic and really want to see a better tomorrow for America, then we individually and collectively must make the decision to not be governed by greed, but to be governed by responsible capitalism? Capitalism, with the right spirit, is not demonic. It only becomes demonic, or as Steven Pearlstein says, problematic when we forfeit our “sense of a larger purpose, of how it fits into and serves society.”
It’s my prayer that capitalism will not control us, but that we will control capitalism.
The Rev. Dr. Kevin R. Johnson is the senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.