There was a pretty amazing moment Tuesday during the JPMorgan Chase shareholders meeting. A woman from the group Illinois People's Action, Dawn Dannenbring, who as a shareholder had the right to speak at the meeting, said to CEO Jamie Dimon: “As a person of faith, my God believes you shouldn’t take advantage of people when they are down. Do you believe in the same God I believe in?” Dimon was apparently a little taken aback, answering, "That's a hard one to answer.”
Well, I’m sure on one level it was. He wouldn’t have known what religion the woman was, or what she truly thought about God. He probably has never been asked his theological views in his job as JPMorgan Chase CEO before. But even though I have no knowledge whatsoever of Jamie Dimon’s faith or theology, I feel extremely confident in saying I know the answer: it would be “no.”
I don’t know what Dannenbring’s religion is, but it is clear she comes out of the historic faith tradition that takes the idea of a God caring about justice for regular people seriously. From the God of Genesis condemning Cain for not being his brother’s keeper, to Old Testament prophets who condemned their societies for throwing poor people out of their homes and leaving people to starve in the streets, to Jesus telling people to treat the weak and poor with mercy and help the least of these, the Judeo-Christian Bible shows us a God who cares deeply about economic justice and the downtrodden. And it isn’t just the Bible: pretty much every major religion, and every major ethical system ever developed, shares fundamental notions of fairness, compassion, honesty, treating others as you would want to be treated, and looking out for those weaker and poorer than you. These ideas are thousands of years old, and are the basis of a decent civilization.
Now I know some people in the financial industry who are fine people. Some of them understood the flaws in our financial system, and helped make constructive proposals on financial reform. Some of them invested the old-fashioned way, in great companies that are creating new jobs in America. But it seems apparent that most of the top executives and traders of the biggest financial institutions in America — the six Too Big To Fail banking conglomerates that own assets equivalent to 64 percent of our GDP — tend to get deeply confused by any question related to this kind of moral, ethical, or religious set of values because they don’t think about them in any way in their work lives.
Some — the people who blatantly steal bigger and bigger sums of money from their own companies and clients — have no ethical code at all. But even for most of those who do, the ethical code is constructed so that it allows them to abuse everyone outside of his or her own firm: what they believe is that their sole obligation is to their shareholders. Period. The bank clerks and secretarial staff don’t get paid very well and don’t share in the big bonuses handed out every quarter. Their clients sometimes get the short end of the stick, as these firms have frequently and notoriously traded against their clients’ interest. Their mortgage holders have been cheated over and over again, as the courts and more and more government investigators have been finding. The small businesspeople who accept debit and credit cards from the big banks have been forced to pay exorbitant swipe fees for years.
Beyond these moral failings with the people they deal with most closely, these big bankers seem to have no ethics about other people in general. After gambling recklessly with other people’s money, creating the biggest financial panic since the crash of 1929, needing to take a massive government bailout (TARP ain’t the half of it, check out this article about the free money they got from the Fed), wrecking the world economy and throwing 8 million Americans out of work, and then handing themselves record bonuses the year after the crash, they seem to feel not even an iota of shame. One Wall Street banker even compared Obama to Hitler for daring to suggest they pay a fair share of taxes.
Now, after outspending reformers more than 500 to 1 during the legislative fight over financial reform last year, and weakening the bill in some important ways, these same Wall Street bankers are trying to roll back the best of the reforms we did win, and they are trying to weasel out of any liability over destroying the housing market. On derivatives regulation, on swipe fee reform, on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and on helping homeowners with underwater mortgages, the big banks on definitely on the wrong side. They don’t want any oversight; they don’t want to negotiate with anyone over anything; they don’t want to help anyone they have wronged or anyone in financial stress; they don’t want to pay another dime in taxes even as they make record profits and take home record bonuses. They don’t care who they hurt, as long as they stay wealthy and overwhelmingly powerful.
So look, I’m not going to claim to know whether a God of compassion, mercy, and justice exists. But I do feel quite confident in stating there is no way Jamie Dimon could believe in such a God, and still act the way he does as CEO of JPMorgan Chase.