"Repent," the preacher cried out, startling those who heard him.
This was no street evangelist ranting at the passing crowd, but the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England. His sharp admonition was pointed directly at a particular set of sinners, who undoubtedly had never given any thought to the morality of their actions: the barons of global banking.
As in our country, people in Europe are enraged at those hustlers of high finance who wrecked the world's economies, then flexed their political muscle to get governments to replenish their bankrupt vaults. Infuriatingly, these bailed-out bankers have now returned to business as usual, including grabbing monstrous bonus payments for themselves.
In Europe, such greed is not only being assailed politically, but it is also being cast as a matter of fundamental moral failure. As another of Britain's leading clergymen put it, "There is a general feeling that the level of bonuses we've seen have been obscene."
While top executives of Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and other big investment houses were initially puzzled and hurt by the public's moral outrage, their audacious sense of personal worth and entitlement quickly kicked back in. So Europeans are now witnessing the spectacle of bankers draping themselves in radiant robes of ethical purity.
"Profit is not satanic," the CEO of Barclays recently proclaimed. "Size is not necessarily evil," asserted the head of Deutsche Bank.
But leave it to Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs (and the world's highest-paid banker -- $68 million in 2007 alone) to combine self-pity with self-adulation in a grandiose PR effort to reposition financial thieves as paragons of social altruism. "I know I could slit my writs and people would cheer," he acknowledged in an interview published Nov. 8 in London's Sunday Times. But, he said of himself and his big banking brethren," We're very important. We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that create more growth and more wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It's a virtuous cycle."
And, just in case you missed the message of Blankfein's morality tale, he concluded by portraying himself as a mere banker "doing God's work."
Wow. What a wrathful god he must worship!
One wonders -- has Lord Blankfein even read about, much less visited, any of the millions of Americans who are out of work or out of business because of the financial schemes and scams that he and his peers conjured up? Who does he think he's fooling? Far from investing capital (including the trillions of dollars they took from us taxpayers) in companies and jobs, these financial whizzes continue to throw it into the global craps game of debt swaps and other speculative nonsense. The game enriches them and their super-wealthy clients, but it creates nothing whatsoever of social value.
Nonetheless, this clueless clique is actually claiming that we commoners should be applauding the return of their multimillion-dollar bonus bonanzas. Why? Because, they aver, the rich payouts allow them to contribute to charity.
Such narcissism reminds me of a story about a selfish, no-good rich man who died and tried to get into heaven. But you can't just walk through the Pearly Gates. An angel reviews your life, then St. Peter decides if you can enter. To counter the angel's negative review, the rich man argued that he had a history of charitable giving. He'd once tossed a nickel into a beggar's cup, he pointed out. Plus, some years later, he had aided a poor woman by giving her a nickel. Then there was the time he put a nickel into the Salvation Army kettle.
Hearing all this, the angel turned to St. Peter and asked, "What in the world should we do with this man?" And St. Peter said, "Give him back his 15 cents, and tell him to go to hell!"
Now that's a story that these big banksters need to hear -- and ponder.