Wall Street Joural
By DAVID WEIDNER
WRITING ON THE WALL
APRIL 16, 2009
Would Jesus take a bailout?
Confronted with the once-in-a-century opportunity to remake the financial system, the reformers in Washington have a choice: Succumb to the temptation of serving financial supermarkets or lift up community banks and street-level economies.
Enter Reverend Billy Talen, the New York-based street preacher, performer and activist who -- along with his flock, the Church of Life After Shopping -- believes government has a moral obligation to support communities before big banks.
"I've been trying to drive people out of their institutions," Reverend Billy says. "Their institutions aren't working."
It's hard to imagine Timothy Geithner taking advice from an iconoclast dressed in a white suit, clerical collar and Elvis-inspired hair, but the Reverend Billy may be on to something.
In place of a system where big banks and corporations enter neighborhoods only to profit from them, Reverend Billy wants to empower small banks and credit unions that hold a stake in the communities they serve by offering incentives and making it harder for big finance to undercut local business.
It's hard to argue against the system he envisions.
Think for a moment about what community finance could mean for the nation: Neighborhood banks would lend to local businesses. Profits could stay in the community.
Simply knowing who your customers are and living near them could bring common sense -- the most basic and sound form of risk management -- back to banking.
Sure, it sounds kind of dreamy, but such systems are already in place in the neighborhoods large and small. Small businesses thrive, but they are often at the mercy of big banks who giveth and taketh credit according to shifts in economic cycles.
"The Wall Street experience is parallel and equal to the destruction of neighborhoods through chain stores," Reverend Billy says.
Basic economics are on the Reverend's side. For every dollar spent at a chain store, studies show only 50 cents stays in that community. By contrast, 90 cents of every dollar spent at a local business remains in the local economy.
"It's a little reductive, but people recognize there's a truth in it," Reverend Billy says. "Neighborhoods are economic powerhouses."
Despite his anticorporate stance, Reverend Billy, whose father is a small-town bank chairman, isn't bashing Wall Street right now. (However, he's previously led some disruptive and amusing protests against corporate retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Walt Disney Co.)
The painful fallout of the financial meltdown has led him and his followers to preach centered calm over rage.
"There's not a Puritan attitude about it, there's a practical attitude about it," Reverend Billy says. "People want to know what they can do for their friends and for themselves. We're trying to help each other; share money, share energy, share homes."
It's unlikely that sharing is on the business plan at Citigroup Inc. or Goldman Sachs Group Inc., companies that Reverend Billy excoriates in his sermons. He says the steel and mirrored-glass buildings that house major banks are designed hide what happens inside.
Though colorful, Reverend Billy is no longer a fringe figure. Since he began preaching on the street corners in Times Square a decade ago, Reverend Billy and his anticonsumerism message have gained mainstream attention, thanks in part to his book and a world tour with the church's 40-member choir.
"Preaching is the landscape between talking and singing," Reverend Billy says. "It's like finding a saxophone in your chest."
His breakthrough came in 2007 with the release of "What Would Jesus Buy?", a documentary about church efforts to promote a shopping-free Christmas.
This year, he's running for New York City mayor on the Green Party ticket, campaigning on a community-first platform. Candidate Billy wants to end the city's reliance on what industries susceptible to bubbles and busts: Tourism, Wall Street and real estate.
"Neighborhoods vulnerable to the bubble economies are the ones hurting right now," he says.
Let's be blunt. Scaling down the financial system and our economic lives is a tall order. And Reverend Billy, as much entertainer as clergyman, is an imperfect messenger. He's not a serious leader in the vein of Al Franken or Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Reverend Billy knows he faces long odds both in his mayoral run and his effort to change a system built around spending and credit speculation, but there are signs of hope. His audience was growing before the financial crisis, and things have only gained momentum since. Later this month, he'll speak at the Yale Divinity School.
"People qualify their report of pain by saying 'we're spending more time with our family and that's changing our lives,'" Reverend Billy says. "'Whatever we do next I'm not going back completely to the way I was doing things before,' they say."
The leaders we've chosen to undertake financial reform are threatening to take us back to where we were by propping up banks and companies that nearly brought down the economy and cost taxpayers trillions.
It's clear the bailout policies of the current and former administrations that the financial system of the future will closely resemble the one that gambled away our prosperity. Still, the current situation is not without hints of progress -- legislators want to limit banks' ability to raise interest rates, and this week, outcry from consumers and government officials forced Bank of America to ice plans to raise overdraft fees.
Maybe someone in Washington is getting religion after all.
Write to David Weidner at email@example.com