BEFORE WE TURN THE PAGE ON THE financial crisis that brought
down the world economy two years ago, I hope that someone high up in Washington
or Wall Street reflects in a very public way – say, on 60 Minutes or the Op-Ed page of
The Wall Street Journal – on the lessons of the biblical book of Leviticus for our present predicament, in particular Lev 19:11, 13, and 35-36. While
Within these Old Testament texts, by tradition handed down from God to Moses, and passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, I think, is a good starting point for answering that question:
“You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.” (Lev 19:11)
“You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” (Lev 19:13)
“You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight or quantity. You shall have honest balances, honest weights, and honest ephah, and an honest hin.” (Lev 19:35-36)
Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t defraud. Don’t hold back income that is due to someone. Don’t cheat your customer. (“Ephah” and “hin,” if you’re wondering, are ancient measures of dry and liquid weight.)
It seems like a modest prescription. We’re not talking about giving everything away to the poor here (that’s for another day). I've recently started taking seminary classes (a longtime dream), and reading the Old Testament have been having "what if" moments -- like, what if Leviticus' rules for business had been posted up and down the business world and taught in business schools and employee training? Would we have avoided:
Banks giving mortgages to people who had no hope of ever paying them back (“Saying Yes to Anyone, WaMu Built Empire on Shaky Loans,” headline, The New York Times, 12/28/2008)…
….then selling the risky loans to Wall Street firms, who then packaged them into securities and selling them to unwitting investors who wound up holding the bag (“Securitized Loans Are 5x More Likely to be Delinquent,” headline in the Wall Street blog The Big Picture, 10/19/2009)…
…while creating a culture of secrecy around risk (“Behind Biggest Insurer’s Crisis, a Blind Eye to a Web of Risk” – The NY Times, 9/28/2008), the value of the loans (“Ratings Agencies Draw Fire on Capitol Hill,” NY Times, 10/22/2008), the reality of plummeting profits (“Lehman Channeled Risks through ‘Alter Ego’ Firm,” The NY Times, 4/13/2010), and firms’ true priorities (“SEC Accuses Goldman of Fraud in Housing Deal,” The NY Times, 4/16/2010).
No doubt people at these companies feel they were putting customers first; Goldman Sachs, for one, intends to contest its fraud charges. But many had questions. “We were giving loans to people that never should have had loans,” a bank employee is quoted in one story. “Garbage in, garbage out,” said another employee. A worker at one ratings agency complained his firm had become so beholden to its big customers, it developed “Stockholm syndrome” (NYT, 4/23/2010). “We rate everything,” said another employee. “It could be structured by cows and we would rate it” (NYT, 10/22/08).
Yes, I know the old saw that “business
ethics is a contradiction in terms.” For
decades the orthodoxy in business has been that companies have only one “social responsibility”: as the economist Milton Friedman put it in a famous 1970 essay, “to increase its profits.” Or in the famous words of Gordon Gekko, the tycoon in the movie Wall Street, “greed is good.”
But Friedman left a door open. While maintaining that business should “make as much money as possible,” he allowed that executives needed to conform to “the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.” Does an ancient biblical commandment to be fair and just count as an ethical custom? I’d say yes.
At the advent of capitalism, the Bible was part of the conversation in business. George Fox, the early leader in my faith tradition, Quakerism, regularly inveighed upon his followers to “deal justly,” “speak the truth,” keep “just” weights, and be so straightforward in their business that “a child may come among you and not be wronged.” Quaker businesses listened, and created innovations like a set, fair price. It turned out to be not only the "right" thing to do but also popular – and profitable. Good ethics was good business.
One might argue that Bible says a lot of things. But, unlike some ideas that pop up, then recede, the business commandments continue through the course of the Bible. They’re repeated in Deuteronomy. They’re echoed in Proverbs: “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but an accurate weight is his delight” (Pro 11:1). They’re at the heart of what the Old Testament prophets decried in the world, alongside prophetic broadsides on ignoring the needs of the poor, children, and widows, and idolizing false gods (all, also, applicable to today’s problems).
Reading the prophet Amos’ grievances – of the powerful selling “the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of Nikes” (check that, “sandals”); trampling the poor; taking bribes; and pushing aside the needy (Amos 2:6,7, 5:12) – it’s fair to ask: What would Amos say today?