Sackcloth and Ashes on Wall Street

The proposed bailout of Wall Street gives unprecedented power to one man -- Henry Paulson -- including any action deemed necessary, with no review, and a report to Congress only every six months.
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Yesterday I heard Cokie Roberts on ABC's This Week say: "I'd like to see the CEOs of these companies marched down Wall Street in sackcloth and ashes." In all the words that were written and spoken this weekend, those were perhaps the most appropriate and even prophetic. The proposed bailout of Wall Street banks gives unprecedented power to one man -- Henry Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury. The reported legislative proposal authorizes $700 billion dollars and includes:

The Secretary is authorized to take such actions as the Secretary deems necessary to carry out the authorities in this Act. Within three months of the first exercise of the authority granted in section 2(a), and semiannually thereafter, the Secretary shall report to the Committees on the Budget, Financial Services, and Ways and Means of the House of Representatives and the Committees on the Budget, Finance, Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs of the Senate with respect to the authorities exercised under this Act. Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

Think about that -- any action deemed necessary, with no review, and a report to Congress only every six months. Although we have known for some time that the real power in America was with Wall St. banks rather than elected officials, last week it became crystal clear when one man, himself a former investment banker, was put in charge of America's future. As another week begins and the bailout package is debated, there are three things that Congress should make non-negotiable in any agreement. There must be relief for homeowners in danger of having their mortgages foreclosed. We cannot simply bail out those who created the problem and benefited from it without also helping those who continue to suffer from it. There must be some limit on executive compensation. Those who have already made millions in what the New York Times called "an era of high finance that defined the modern Gilded Age" should not further benefit. William Kristol, with whom I rarely agree on anything, had a good idea this morning:

"Any institution selling securities under this legislation to the Treasury Department shall not be allowed to compensate any officer or employee with a higher salary next year than that paid the president of the United States." This would punish overpaid Wall Streeters and, more important, limit participation in the bailout to institutions really in trouble.

There must be accountability. If such large sums of taxpayer money are being risked, the elected representatives of the people must have meaningful oversight. Last week, I wrote:

The behavior of too many on Wall Street is a violation of biblical ethics. The teachings of Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths condemn the greed, selfishness, and cheating that have been revealed in corporate behavior over decades now, and denounce their callous mistreatment of employees. Read your Bible.

As we begin another week, here's a text to ponder - Micah 2:1-4 - with God's message to Wall Street.

Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning's light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud a man of his home, a fellowman of his inheritance. Therefore, the Lord says: "I am planning disaster against this people, from which you cannot save yourselves. You will no longer walk proudly, for it will be a time of calamity. In that day men will ridicule you; they will taunt you with this mournful song: 'We are utterly ruined; my people's possession is divided up. He takes it from me! He assigns our fields to traitors.'"

Jim Wallis is the author of The Great Awakening, Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners and blogs at

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