Booklet contains the two previous essays, Greed I and Greed II. Click to bookseller.
Copright by Julian Edney 2008
by Julian Edney (1)
An essay concerning the origins, nature, extent and morality of this destructive force in free market economies. Definitions. Paradoxes and omissions in Adam Smith's original theory permit - encourage - greed without restraint so that in a very large society over two centuries it has become an undemocratic force creating precipitous inequalities; divisions in this society now approach a kind of wealth apartheid, and our values are quite unlike Smith's: this is an immensely wealthy society but it is not a humane society. Wealth and poverty are connected, in fact recent sociological theory shows our institutions routinely design inequality in, but this connection is largely avoided in texts and in the media, as is the notion that greed is a moral wrong. Problems created by greed cannot be solved by technology. We are also distracted by environmental rhetoric, arguments that scarcities and human suffering follow from abuse of our ecology. Rather, these scarcities are the result of what people do to people. This focus opens practical solutions.
Sign the tab in certain Midtown eateries and your neighbors’ eyes slide over. Is that a $48,000 Michel Perchin pen? What’s on your wrist – a $300,000 Breguet watch?
In Palm Springs and Bel Air, $100,000 twin-turbo Porsches and $225,000 Ferraris buzz the warm streets. In New York at an exclusive Morell & Company auction last May, a single magnum of Dom Perignon champagne was sold for $5,750. And there are the paintings of course - one evening at auction two Monets sold for $43 million (2). Hotel rooms, anyone, at $10,000 a night? Estate agents in suburbs of Dallas and Palm Beach have advertised baronial homes for sale at over $40 million (3).
These are prices paid by the exceptionally wealthy, the folks who skim the pages of the Robb Report (average annual salary of subscribers: $1.2 million) in whose glossy pages are reviewed the best of everything. In a recent issue a southern plantation is advertised, "everybody's dream," at $8.5 million.
Robert Reich points out that the superrich live in a parallel universe to the rest of the country: much of the time we don’t see them because they live in walled estates, travel in private limousines and use different airports from the rest of us (4). There’s lots of them. There are now more than 200 billionaires. Some five percent of American households have assets over $1 million. And we’re back to levels of extravagant consumption not seen for 100 years (5).
By historical accounts this is a nation of persistent and resilient people with an unshakable mission: the pursuit of happiness. This idea of happiness is largely connected with wealth (and this connection has long philosophic roots). It is a nation of ambitious people with notions of unfettered future growth, a nation that celebrates abundance. There seems to be no reason anyone should be deprived of luxury, if he works hard. Indeed with this country’s aggregate wealth, there should be no reason anyone should ever go hungry or suffer.
People are going hungry in America. A Department of Agriculture survey found 3.9% of the population, or 4.4 million American households, sometimes go hungry for lack of money (6).
Estimates are that 3 out of 10 Americans will face poverty sometime in their lives (7).
Misery is a word seldom applied to the contemporary scene. Like wretchedness it seems antique, an Old World term. But many Americans live in cold, dank slums; many do not earn enough for shelter, many sleep outside. In America’s inner cities and at its lowest levels, under freeway bridges and in tubercular alleys, in stained and broken rooming houses and in torn-apart schools, misery exists and persists. All our largest cities contain neighborhoods where some people live day to day in apartments that could be mistaken for closets, some fearing to leave home on gang-terrorized streets, some sharing bus seats with people with drug-scarred arms. Every great metropolis has its skid row mired in fecal gutters, where whole blocks are awash in narcotics and violence, its inhabitants despised and flatly abandoned.
America is once again a nation of extremes.
As this society grows, it becomes more unequal. As aggregate wealth goes up, equality goes down. Our population has soared 13.2% in the last decade alone to 281 million (8), and the wealth has been concentrating in fewer hands (it has since the 1770s(9)) and the difference between the richest and the poorest is now immense. While the wealthiest individuals count their assets in the tens of billions, the lowest classes are falling. Americans’ earnings are more unequal today than they have been any time in the past 60 years (10). Some corporations' CEOs have been making over 400 times the hourly rate of their lowest worker (11) but this inequality is not just a feature of businesses, it spans a variety of professions, perhaps to include my favorite musicians and your favorite athletes. For example, shortstop Alex Rodriguez's $252 million 10 year baseball contract pays him $170,000 per game(12). To a person receiving the average allocation of $83 per month in food stamps, the inequality is astronomical, and the chances of closing it so small it doesn’t feel like a real freedom.
If the best-off are sealing themselves off, the worst-off are also doubly fenced about, this time by the distrust and aversion of those above. Around 18% of American children are living in poverty. An estimated two million are homeless some time during the year (13), including whole families and people who have full- or part-time jobs (14).
This is a flamboyantly optimistic and self-congratulatory society, and the puzzle is why it allows this suffering. The inequalities are stunning, but a frequent attitude is a shrug – so what?. These days it is hard to plumb a concern.
Frequently I survey acquaintances with this touchstone question, attributed to Rawls (15): Suppose there are people living on one side of a big city who throw weekly parties so lavish that afterwards they are throwing out meat, while on the other side of the same town are people so poor they cannot afford to buy meat at all. Is this a moral problem?
I get a spectrum of answers: "No problem" to "Yes, of course" and in between "Technological, but not ethical problem," and "Maybe, but (horrified look) what solution are you pushing?" – as well as some yawns, as if these questions were so old fashioned. I believe the variety of these responses eventually leads to the question of what kind of society we live in.
Winner Takes All
My first point is that these extremes of wealth are connected. While the rich are growing richer, the poor are growing poorer (16), and this is no coincidence. But we largely deny the connection. This is a society which, as the divide between the happy and the abject grows, tries, now by education, now by medication, now by paradox, now by distraction, to avoid the inhuman consequences of its collective actions, and in the end – because none of those strategies is effective – it is one that uses specific strategies for vacating reality.
Defenders, of course, argue that the rich getting richer benefits all, and that in an economy that is an unlimited, growing, open system, all can rise, that (once we get through temporary difficulties) we will find a full and abundant world.
In fact these are not so much arguments as swollen cliches.
There is indeed a problem, and it has a history. I will sift the philosophy of utilitarianism and Adam Smith’s founding economics theory for origins. Smith's 1776 treatise, we recall, tied the growth of wealth to the work of common entrepreneurs. It refused the inherited inequalities of aristocracy and with the Enlightenment's notion of reason, a quality accessible to Everyman, it promptly democratized the economy. This philosophy was exported whole cloth to the new America, and it has since grown to dominate our economic policies, its influence is now worldwide. But despite its original claims, we will find it woven with mystical filaments and contradictions. I will show that as the theory is commonly related, it is hard to separate rationality from dogma.
Competition is a fundamental good in utilitarian economics. Competition is a process which results in inequalities – winners and losers. It cannot be, in a society of free competitive units, that competition among all is good for all. Modern analysts Cook and Frank show free market competition has become so stark that we are becoming a winner-takes-all society (17). In a giant economy, aggressive acquisition, greed, where so widespread and popular as to be celebrated, has resulted in colossal differences, so that, as much as we are accustomed to reproaching the Europeans for their inequalities, we are now caught in a lie. We have become more unequal. The United States is the wealthiest nation. But its child poverty rate ranks worse than all European nations (18).
Historians Will and Ariel Durant (19) estimated in their survey that the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in America has become greater than at any time since Imperial plutocratic Rome.
Inequality is a non-issue to the defenders of Smithian economics. The pursuit of excellence makes it inevitable and, they argue, the pursuit of excellence benefits all. So we are hostage to a paradox. As powerfully as we struggle for wealth and happiness we fling ourselves on the axiom that we all are equal, leaving some damage to the national psyche.
The whispered truth is that this nation bent on the pursuit of happiness is not so happy. Suicide afflicts all classes, and suicide rates are now so high as to eclipse homicide rates with three suicides for every two murders. Surgeon General Satcher partially blamed the media (20). Clinical depression is at its highest rate in decades (21). There are unprecedented rates of anxiety, companionship itself is receding, trust is fading (22). Tens of millions are using prescription mood elevators.
Scarcity oppresses. And the worst signs of unhappiness cluster in the lowest cuts: we have among the highest national rates of imprisonment, and the Administration concedes there are 5 million hard-core drug users in America (23) and millions of alcoholics, all disproportionately among the poor.
Resonating with the battle cry of the French Revolution, Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, the American Constitution was written with promises of human liberty and equality. Freedom and equality qualify as the fundamental political virtues. They are the two legs upon which democracy walks.
The second of the promises is broken.
So we first have a philosophical problem: There are many reasons for inequality, but it is ensured in an unfettered materialistic society by a celebrated style of acquisition we call greed. Greed is not just the whimsical excess of the individual. Its most virulent forms are displayed by business groups and corporations – but aggregated, it is an antidemocratic force.
Greed demolishes equity. Simply, you cannot have both unrestrained greed and equality.
The principle of freedom always comes first, argues the Smithian capitalist. But in America, freedom has become something else, a wild individualism (24) with a strange amnesia – a disconnect between parts of our culture. A kind of sociopathic haze is settling, helped by mood-altering drugs and television, and appearing in the fashionable cluelessness and chic ignorance - so ubiquitous they have aerated society to numbness. Another facet is the narcissism (to rival one of Dostoevsky's characters so narcissistic he cared more about an ounce of his own body fat than the lives of 100,000 of his own countrymen (25)). What the free individual chooses to do is now paramount., and the poor understand that detachment is the pivot. Detachment allows the paradox that you can both compete with others but not be involved with what results. The concept of "the common good" has almost disappeared, and nobody is his brother's keeper.
Neither are these inequalities an unfortunate by-product of the healthy struggle. Competitive acquisition for the sake of exhibition is again in vogue – and it seems television repeatedly flaunts that on the way to wealth, there are no principles competitors won’t compromise. Besides hunger and fear, lack of health care, decent education and housing shortages, which make living hard, the poor live with brash opulence in their faces. People in decaying buildings daily watch glittering television scenes of shining cars, ocean yachts, and overflowing parties of the rich and famous. Owned by these images, a poor person cannot but feel the differences, and year by year these images add a sedimented frustration, resentment, sense of failure and inferiority which they cannot avoid.
Poverty is also punitive. The poverty-struck family is not just paying the price of its own failure: it is also paying the price of others’ success.
Still, many regard these problems as if they were no more than the economy’s stubble, moles, and split ends.
Second, we have a practical problem. The Durants show a cycle repeating through history. Great social inequality creates an unstable equilibrium. The swelling numbers of the poor and resentful come to rival the power of the rich. As grievances and restlessness grow, government worsens, becoming tyrannical. Eventually a critical point arrives. Wealth will be redistributed, either by politics, or by revolution.
Denying the Shadow
Could it happen in America? To some analysts, it is already beginning. A survey released by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation attributes our enduring levels of violence to "vast and shameful inequality in income, wealth and opportunity among urban poor" who are often "trapped in places of terror" (26) - inequalities which are simply un-American, opines C. Murphy (27). Troubling studies exist, but we surround this research with technicians questioning methodology and politicians arguing the study represents no reality. There is denial: "Forget the data," asserts one newspaper columnist on poverty issues, "…things have gotten better." (28)
Finally, this issue is no longer the environmentalist's concern about scarcity of natural resources, nor the population expert's warnings about Earth’s limits to growth. These scarcities are man made, the result of what people do to people. The fact is, far from being an abundant world, it is a world of scarcity because we calibrate it so. And yet the moral connection is absent.
Currently our aggregate wealth is like a high tide, covering many unpleasant things on the ocean floor. When there is full employment, we all seem happily raised. But a few years ago the Harvard Business Review carried an article daring to look down: Richard Freeman (29) warns that under the surface America is becoming dangerously segregated, forming an apartheid economy, and the lowest are not free to move up. Freeman adds a shadow. He sketches in a huge new group of Americans, the economically sinking workers who are trailing their counterparts in other advanced countries.
Sociologist Derber’s point is that where people are homeless, starving, or jobless, civil society has failed (30).
But these demographics will not reverse, because we are a society busily denying its own shadow. In this essay I will pull back the curtain on the irrational in this driving, powerful economy. Instead of an overarching machinery running on smooth technical devices, we shall see a clutter of denial, rationalization, visionary statements and internal contradictions. And the quietness around this topic has another reason. Perhaps we had better be quiet. If we look up, we see Goliath.
Greed vastly predates Smithian economics, of course. It is one of the Bible’s Seven Deadly Sins. Contemporary dictionaries define it as intense acquisitiveness of (usually material) goods or wealth. To dilate: Greed is the acquisition of a desirable good by one person or a group beyond need, resulting in unequal distribution to the point others are deprived. Competitive greed is the same type of acquisition deliberately to create that inequality. Punitive greed is the same type of acquisition deliberately to leave the deprived suffering, powerless or disabled. Sometimes it takes fine grained analysis of circumstance and motive to distinguish these, but all the preceding involve overt behaviors, and the measure is the resulting inequities. Simple greed does not require intention, for instance while continuing to acquire in the face of others’ deprivation a person denies greed explaining he is unaware of results; it is still greed, the measure being the resulting inequity. Next, passive hoarding which perpetuates extremes of inequity previously created is also greed. Next, greed is not always impulsive. It may be planned and calibrated; sustained effort and greed are not incompatible. Next, greed can be exhibited by person, group, corporation, even government. Common observation also shows personality differences. Not everybody exhibits the extremes of greed; but I believe all people act on the impulse at some time in their lives.
In practice, as James Childs points out, greedy individuals usually hoard both wealth and power (31).
The origins of greed are not mysterious. Like the origins of the drive for power the seeds are everywhere, and if a little bit feels good, more must be better. Previous lack is not necessary to start greed any more than fire is started by lack of fire, but like fire greed expands where it can, it has no internal homeostatic mechanism and the bigger it gets, the faster it grows. Its spread is also quickened by social imitation, akin to panic spreading through a crowd.
Greed is not a rational force.
As a concept greed has largely lost its moral sting. Few contemporary dictionaries include that it is reprehensible. The modern fashion not to sound judgmental, situation ethics, and the habit of social scientists to use past deprivation, social pressure, low self esteem, background, entitlement and myriad extenuating circumstances to explain the behavior, make the moral question so complex, all has crumbled into uncertainty.
This essay resurrects the moral dimension. If the consequences of greed are harm and pain, it is immoral. If greed is flaunted, when the pain is known, it is also sociopathic. These situations are quite common. Anyone doubting the concept of punitive greed should recall that the ancient book by Sun Tzu The Art of War is required reading in top corporate circles.
Not all wealth is created by greed, and not all inequalities are caused by greed, but if you could start with a society of complete equals, unrestrained greed will be sufficient to quickly render that society unequal.
It is also the purpose of this paper to suggest repairs, for which we need to know how our present problems started. Our founding economic theory is tangled.
You had to be Bold
The ordinary test of a philosophy is whether it makes people better and happier, whether it results in prosperity, cooperation and peace. Utilitarianism seemed a swaggering success because it dismantled the smothering pessimism of the Middle Ages, when a social caste system shackled your life chances, church dogma shrouded attitude and thought. Hobbes's dictum at the time was that life for Everyman was solitary, nasty, poor, brutish and short . Our current economic theory is based on a radically different idea.
You had to be bold bringing out new ideas in the European 1700s but they were revolutionary times and philosophers risked their necks pushing some new arguments that people were created equal and each had the liberty to create his own destiny. The French Revolution opened with its violence for equality. In England these ideas took shape as utilitarianism, a put-together philosophy that is neither profound nor poetic, but which was brazenly inclusive, and it confronted a national system of unbearably elaborate dogma and ancient ritual. Jeremy Bentham, Henry Sidgwick,. J.S. Mill and Adam Smith drew the footings.
Inverting the Problem
Rather than religious, utilitarianism uses secular, psychological motivators to explain human behavior, the emotions of pleasure (happiness) and pain. Pleasure is a good. Its ethics: units of pleasure and pain can be summed and compared, and we should choose the act that results in the greatest good for the greatest number, calculations that any person can do. Utilitarianism is practical, astonishingly democratic, and astonishingly rule-free. The utilitarians bluntly advised governments, let the people alone. Let them be human, doing what they do naturally.
So instead of having high priests and nobility dictating values, utilitarianism promotes the values of science, which are truth, practicality and factuality. Adam Smith’s contribution was a step further, to give happiness a mercantile slant. In the new philosophy there is no conspicuous concern with sympathy, compassion, honesty, courage, grace, generosity, altruism, charity, beauty, purity, love, care nor honor. It accepts that humans are fundamentally selfish and egoistic and that they don’t care about society as a whole. So how does utilitarianism reconcile the selfishness of individuals with the common good - a problem no other social philosophy had solved? Adam Smith’s breakthrough was inverting the problem. He simply declared that the selfishness of man and the good of society go together. The general welfare is best served by letting each person pursue his own interests. Each unit egoistically strives to better his own lot and maximize his own pleasures. In exerting himself so, he looks for efficiency, for better ways to make money. He’ll invent a better way to cure hides or find a quicker delivery route, for entirely personal gain. But these are soundly rational moves from an economic point of view, and when everybody does this, it sums and spreads through the community, which is improved as if lifted by an invisible hand because no individual intended that end. And we note all of this is achieved without the value of justice, because justice, like the preceding list of noble values, is not a natural quality. It requires rules, and utilitarianism is fundamentally to be rule-free.
Its writers were bold. Utilitarianism pitched a very big tent. As far as theories go, it is fabulously inclusive, reaching down from intrahuman emotions all the way up to prescriptions for nations. For Smith, a country is its economics.
Exported raw to America, this principle spread like wildfire, melding with the American philosophy of Pragmatism. Old morality withered, except where it became an instrument of economic progress. Little of value existed outside of usefulness, and a means-to-ends consciousness became urgent. It also emerged in the national consciousness that this pursuit was unlimited – this was the spirit of freedom.
At the end of the 1800s, enormous business and enormous acquisition was understood as heroic. It still is. We still believe in the invisible hand, and that the outsize wealth of the topmost benefits all. These are the footings of our contemporary capitalistic society and our progress in national wealth has been the awe of other countries.
Lost in the Rout
The typical high school textbook teaches a skimmed version of Adam Smith’s argument that as the rich get richer, it’s good for everybody. Not until he gets to college does the student find complications in Smithian capitalism, such as the persistence of inequalities, and of poverty. If the student pursues the study of economics he will eventually read texts containing "Indifference Curves" which show the economy actually does better with social inequality (32). The original ideal of equality is tainted, the pursuit of happiness is full of conditions.
Utilitarianism runs into trouble with some simple counterexamples.
If we should judge an act by what brings the greatest good to the greatest number (the ‘hedonic calculus’) then, for instance, in setting up a factory to make cheap clothes, the pain caused to employees doing tedious work for low wages is offset by the greater benefit to the greater number of customers who benefit from cheap clothes, and the factory is a good idea.
This example shows how the hedonic calculus is a sum of pleasure units weighed against units of pain. It is a simple additive economics, held to be rational. But in each example, there is no provision for the minority caught offside. Why don’t we have public executions? – the pain to the victim would be more than offset by the summed satisfactions of all the spectators. A second counterexample, in different circumstances: suppose, on a battlefield, a hand grenade is tossed in on five soldiers in a trench. If one of them throws himself on it, saving the lives of the others, the hedonic calculus makes this a good act. But utilitarian ethics is also satisfied if one of the soldiers is pushed or ordered onto the grenade because four lives are still saved at the cost of one. Other philosophical systems would consider that an entirely different act. The usual explanation for these counterexamples is that utilitarianism includes an understanding that we are all enlightened people with civilized motives. Selfish, yes; competitive, yes. But we would never take pleasure from the suffering of another human, and we are not cruel – we are simply not that kind of people.
We are a species of competitives, and each person is inclined to do what benefits him and utilitarianism does not recognize greed nor avarice as moral wrongs. It regards self promotion as rational. It does not list equality as a social virtue. The problem is, utilitarianism is a philosophy with no ideals to offend anybody – just what works.
In the 1800s, through its industrial stage, Smithian economics consumed whole cities, and in the rout, gentlemanly civilities were lost. Some people got prodigiously wealthy, others suffered. But Darwinism was also rising and the robber-baron acquired allies among the Darwinists who held that inequality is an unavoidable fact of nature, so in capitalism’s results, no guilt. It held, there are only the strong and the weak. Historically, it took more than a century after Adam Smith for the western democracies to question child labor. Until that time, the invisible hand justified the misery of legions of ragged and barefoot children whose lives were ruined in dank mills and deep mines, whose profits made Britain and America so powerful (33).
In fact there are many ways to crack Adam Smith's theory and John Nash's (34) famous mathematical rebuttal is only one.
An elementary rule of logic is that when there is a contradiction anywhere within a theorem, the whole theorem is false.
The center of Adam Smith economics is a paradox. It says, what’s good for the selfish individual is also the common good. Secondly, it says, when you and I are in competition, what’s good for me is also good for you. Those two by fiat.
Next paradox: utilitarianism does have an indirect gesture at equality. The notion is that when many units compete under the same rules of market exchange, the ever-circulating of goods and money keeps the whole system fluid; units are free to enter and exit this system at will. There is only one system, the free market, so we are all in the same boat, so we all must be the same. In practice, of course, history shows us a boat or ship of state with sweating galley rowers down on benches in the bilge, and with people up on deck all dressed in colorful finery, their faces upturned into the glorious sun. Yes, we are all in the same boat. And what is different is supposed to be the same.
The fourth self-contradiction is that free market capitalism is supposed to rectify past inequalities by allowing free competition, which is something that results in inequalities.
Further, Smith’s system cannot be regulated at the extremes where self-interest becomes the greed of not-so-well intentioned entrepreneurs, profiteers in cartels, and of corners, squeezes, and monopoly makers. All of these also want wealth but they are for the common bad.
But here is the most obvious point. Try to fit greed into the hedonic calculus and watch the ethics. Greed is the outstanding moral wrong because it reverses the utilitarian ethic, with greatest happiness for the smallest number.
The most popular way to handle paradoxes are to ignore them, of course. They take thought, and I'll argue later this is discouraged by our culture of bombastically bright entertainment. Another way is to repair them with rationalizations. Historically, the contradiction between the Constitution's talk of happiness and justice, and what was visible to the naked eye, that most workers’ lives were still nasty, brutish and short, was rationalized by saying actually pain and suffering are good because they goaded the poor into greater efforts, thus the economy is energized. And this rationalization thrives today.
Since the promise of upward mobility is axiomatic in Smithian economics, we should take a closer look. Present inequality is vast enough, the chances for the poor to work to close up the gap are long gone. Inequalities of this magnitude tend to become hereditary (35) and by and large, the descendants of the American poor will be poor. Upward mobility is a sacrosanct notion in Smithian economics, very widely held because the freedom to move up represents hope - in some people’s minds, this freedom rebuts all criticism of the system. Let's measure this myth. While there is freedom to move up adjacent classes (a stock hand may rise to supermarket manager in a lifetime), the same freedom allows many people also to fall, which is called downward mobility, and which occurs in similar numbers. But the chances of a person born poor climbing all five classes into the top ("making it"), while occurring in a few widely publicized instances, are too small to constitute a real freedom. (Remembering that the top is an extremely thin, long tip to a pyramid (36), one sociologist puts the upper class at roughly 3 percent of the population. About 7.7% of that has moved in from below – a minute, and historically persistent, figure (37) . The argument that everyone is free to rise to the top is dismantled in most introductory sociology textbooks - although a student must usually wait until college to read this. But the trick of flaunting possibility to mask actual probability is not a casual device.
These paradoxes are no less nonsensical because they are cross-stitched into the writings of professional economists. Economists have been building on Adam Smith's examples of pin factories and canal barges for more than two hundred years. Our libraries contain shelf upon creaking shelf of intellectual embroidery around these basics. But the end result is that today all we have is a long, groping slavery to principles which don’t work; can’t work; because some of Adam Smith’s axioms don’t even rise to the level of common sense.
A historical detail: one of the popular distractions of Smith's era was spiritualism. The vernacular was everywhere. Rawls has unearthed a minor book in utilitarianism, F.Y. Edgeworth's Mathematical Psychics. In that era, leisure time for the upper classes was spent at seances. Sidgwick was president of a Society for Psychical Research and actually conducted experiments to evoke mysterious forces. Science was in its infancy. And Smith's "invisible hand" is not a scientific principle. It is a mystical concept.
Marx's principles were once the major rebuttal, but now that communism has largely collapsed (of the world’s 260 countries only 5 now are communist) Adam Smith’s doctrine appears to emerge again, as if the winner, a victorious truth. If size is success, the showcase example is today’s megacompany, the corporation "overweeningly powerful and accountable to no one" (38), almost magical, because the belief also lives that once a certain high level of anything is achieved, you are invulnerable and above the law. This is a place where heroes live – the Nietzschean mystique – where big things get done, where no one is slowed down by theoretical contradictions.
Recently, psychologists have provided a decimating argument against Smithian theory. Ryan and Deci (39) have summarized a whole literature in psychology on the antecedents of human well-being. Psychologists have always wondered what makes people feel good, and for decades they have quizzed people on the intricacies of happiness. The general answer, all the more reliable because it is based on voluminous and cross cultural research, is that money is not a reliable route to happiness. Happiness is based on other, internal factors. The relation of wealth to well-being is tenuous; only below the poverty line does money bring well-being, above it, increases in personal wealth do not bring increased happiness. A corollary finding is that the more people focus on financial and materialistic goals, the lower their feeling of well-being. Finally, certain people tenaciously believe that money does bring happiness; they are the unhappy. Together, these findings largely dismantle Smithian theory of human motivation. For the present essay it also means that the motivation behind greed, pursuit of material wealth to extremes, cannot be for the happiness it brings. There is nothing heroic about greed. It is closer to obsession.
In fact, after the fall of communism, most of the original problems of industrial capitalism have reemerged too – in different guise. Instead of local factories and mills, we have transnational corporations, just as indifferently employing hordes of unprotected labor, including children, for egregiously low wages in foreign countries.
All notable developments for a philosophy that was invented against privilege and tyranny.
If we are to build up a system with paradoxes, we must promote contradiction as we go. This begins with the contradictory myths we are teaching our children.
We are currently teaching our young two incompatible morality tales.
Horatio Alger's children’s books from the 1800s tell the story of a boy from ragged tenement origins who struggles from poverty up to riches in an urban odyssey of unflagging effort, single-minded ambition, determination, tenacity and hard work. The boy hero meets tyrannical employers, jealous competitors, wily criminals, prejudice and derision of the poor. He defeats mountainous odds to emerge finally on top, financially successful, pulling his own mother up out of poverty, and this all with his good character intact, in a world where the good guys always win.
The youngest minds get molded around the idea that this sort of ambition makes a person invincible. This myth instills a trust in long term, hard work .
Yet in the same semester our schoolchildren learn the opposite value: how to turn a quick profit using cunning and slick chatter. A contemporary of Alger’s, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), wrote luminous country tales, regularly read to children. In one, Tom Sawyer, a juvenile in a mid-nineteenth century American small town, is ordered to complete a wearying chore one beautiful Saturday morning, to whitewash a long fence. But our Tom is a gifted talker, and he figures a way out of the task. As each of his friends comes walking by, Tom plays the work up to be a magically rare opportunity, and his friends, persuaded, compete for a chance to try it, actually paying Tom their toys to let them paint the fence. More friends come by and Tom gets rich from all their prize possessions while getting them to do the work for him until the task is done. The story is imagetic and funny, but it values slyness over effort, and it makes a clear point of getting ahead by exploiting one’s friends. Despite the phosphorescent prose, this tale is about skimming and suckers in a world where the good guys do not win. In it, winners are people who subtly know how to manipulate the wants of others (40).
It would be nice if children generalized from Alger and colored themselves all industrious, righteous, honest, rational and forward thinking. But growing up, some of us have absorbed the point that hard work is for dupes, and that out of the sleeve of ambition comes the hand of greed.
The topic of greed battles with a powerful distracter.
Poverty, I have argued, is partly a product of unfettered greed.
But since the 1970s we have been captured in the orbit of a certain kind of argument, that we have poverty and scarcity because our planet Earth has limits and we are running out of food and raw materials.
Actually there is a new consciousness on this point. Analysts Mark Sagoff (41) and Bjorn Lomborg (42) head this argument. Since the 1970s environmentalists have been predicting energy will be dangerously short because we consume too much. These predictions are framed in phrases of standard economic theory, in material terms, with mathematical projections of dire depletion and collapse of the ecosystem if we continue at present rates. They state we will imminently see starvation among industries for materials, accompanied by starvation among people.
But these predictions simply haven’t turned out. Both analysts document that since the 1970s the world's most basic resources have actually become more abundant and cheaper. There are ultimate planetary limits, of course, but we are nowhere near. Malthusian arguments that starvation exists because there are ‘too many people’ don’t compute. In far too many places where the absolute level of food supply is adequate, there is famine. The world now produces enough food for everyone to have an adequate protein-rich vegetarian diet if the food was equally distributed.
But, says Sagoff, neither technology nor economics can address the major causes of starvation which are corruption, mismanagement, ethnic antagonism, war, trade barriers, and social conflict. Absolute levels of raw resources are not getting worse; what is getting worse is the difference in income between the wealthy and the poor. Technological methods will not bring solutions. Not until we try a solution that turns on the moral will we begin to see improvement.
Scarcity is man made. The whole debate needs a new pivot.
There is a lot of misery worldwide, and the argument that there is abundance for all who would only try is false. We need a new paradigm to explain life-threatening scarcity in the face of plenty.
What drives this society? We proudly answer that what fuels people in this nation is a competitive drive to be better. The obvious result is inequality, because the intention is inequality. Competition deserves a closer look.
Anthropologist Ruth Benedict summarized her overseas work saying the most obvious difference among societies was whether the living was cooperative or competitive. This was the 1930s. She used the term synergy. A high synergy society is socially cohesive, cooperative and unaggressive - one person’s acts at the same time serve his own advantage and that of the group, his gain results in a gain for all. But cultures with low synergy are highly competitive and the individual gains advantage only at the expense of another, aggression is prized, indeed humor originates from one person’s victory and another’s demolition. Low synergy eventually threatens the social fabric. Her example was the Dobu of New Guinea, whose daily atmosphere of ill will and treachery among all made it a showcase of Hobbesean nastiness, and feared among its neighboring tribes. The Dobu have no chiefs, no government, no legalities and live very close to the "state of nature" philosophers propose. Danger is at its height within the tribe, not from without, and the attitude lives that it is prudent and right to inflict pain on losers to protect your win. Hierarchy is based on ruthlessness which is admired, and inequality and injustice are believed to be in the nature of things (43).
Benedict pointed out the world’s societies can be arranged on a continuum from those with the highest synergy to those with the lowest.
In our own society, we love competition and we promote inequality. A team of sociologists headed by C.S. Fisher (44) has recently tightened this argument with a treatise that first attacks the Bell Curve explanation that inherited differences in IQ and natural talent can be used to explain our unequal fortunes. They summarily deny the economist's claim that inequality fosters economic growth. Third, they state, our inequalities are by design, and they are growing. The result is that in the last twenty years we have become a steeply hierarchical society, and this is with popular support. We are choosing inequality through government economic policies that chronically distributed wealth unfairly.
Clearly our own society has lower synergy than we boast - and it’s falling.
Simply, any free market culture that would rather create a market in a resource than have abundance for all is creating inequality as it goes. But so long as we can attribute unhappiness to global limits, or to inherited individual differences, then nature is to blame. We can hoist a paradox. We can both have our levels of misery and congratulate ourselves on our modern attitudes and on a humane society.
Manipulation of Hope
That last hypocrisy is researched by two Yale scholars, Guido Calabresi and Philip Bobbitt (45) who argue we practice inequality everywhere while pretending to equality (it is so close to our notion of justice). This subversion requires a nest of contradictory customs, a shell game designed to help us avoid and deny the moral consequences. And a retreat to other standards: sometimes, conceding inequalities, we will go through contortions to show that at least we are humane. The cost of all this, of course, is honesty.
Calabresi and Bobbitt argue that instead of universal abundance, there is perpetual scarcity. We calibrate it so. Society oscillates between two kinds of decisions. A first order decision is how much to produce or allow of a desirable good, and a second order decision is who shall get it. If this process were obvious, we would be outraged at the insight that there is needless suffering, because the scarcity is man made. Whether the desirable good is shelter, life-saving medical treatment, an education, or decent treatment by the police, we simultaneously manage the perception that all is well when in fact it is well with only a fraction of the population. Seeing certain medications or (in war) draft-deferments only go to the rich, or seeing that with our aggregate wealth, poverty need not exist, we search for reasons that suffering comes to some people but not others. The focus becomes methods of allocation. The central insight is to see that allocation by itself is an act signifying inequality. We realize certain methods of allocation are "acceptable," meaning they do not morally offend, for instance, the free market method acceptably allocates hunger because it decentralizes choice into individual decisions, and we can blame the hungry person. So this distracts from the scarcity itself. And hope is preserved. But each allocation method is rather arbitrary. We wonder if, keeping the same overall percentages, poverty could just as well be allocated by lottery. The market does not acceptably allocate the draft, so we have to shift to another method of allocating that inequality. Mistakes in choosing allocation method pull back the curtain on the fact of the original scarcities, creating fear and outrage. But the reality is, the scarcity of doctors, on whom lives depend, is a result of a human decision how many to train - and not a limitation of Earth's carrying capacity.
While we are uncomfortable with the fact that the market runs an "acceptable" number of auto deaths, cancer fatalities, or hungry four-year-olds, it allows us to explain each case as personal misfortune. It will appear there is no other choice, and our morality is preserved.
So while we believe in a strong, happy society, brimming with progress and good for all its people, we get daily news hinting at our less-civilized status. The facts are, shelters for battered women are always crowded, fear permeates some schools, barbarism spreads in our prisons, and in some precincts it is becoming harder to distinguish police behavior from that of criminals. Calabresi and Bobbit continue this argument describing a societal device we use in huge efforts to preserve this contradiction.
The perception of humaneness is crucial. It tells us our system is both strong and good; otherwise glimpses of inhumanity are a dangerous hint that things are not working. Two examples: some years ago, a million dollars was spent on the rescue of a single downed balloonist in a dramatic, highly publicized race of helicopters and boats. The drama proved our humanity. We make massive efforts for someone in distress. What was never publicized was the chronic underbudgeting of the Coast Guard which otherwise would make such rescues routine. In a second example, heroic amounts were spent to rescue prisoners from a fire in a penitentiary. But what was never revealed is that the prison's scarce medical resources meant hundreds of others routinely went without treatment or died at other times. This type of rare and heavily publicized humane event, fed to a sensation-hungry press, creates a "sufficiency paradox", an "illusion of sufficiency" (46) that the goodness is there for us all. Generalized, this creates the illusion of abundance. The media deal in demonstrations of sudden and spectacular humanity. But for every person who gets the rare benefit, many others do not. A life-saving kidney goes to one of several people in need, and the life-taking decision about the others is not publicized. The "illusion of sufficiency" device massively confuses possibility with probability but on a societal level, it is a media-promoted and effective manipulation of hope.
We too use Potemkin villages.
What about all the people who lose to scarcity? People hate themselves for failing, but unless society is honest, they must absorb the original scarcity plus the anguish of not knowing how they failed and not knowing what to do. To the loser the frustration and humiliation of not knowing why, creates "the Kafkaesque cost of being in a process without knowing how to help oneself" (47). If people compared our national inequities in wealth with the insight that, through decided levels of scarcity, the aggregate amount of suffering is controlled, public emotion could erupt.
Calabresi and Bobbitt's point is that we must keep examining our values. Equality and honesty are prime values. But in these machinations, they are chronically opposed. We must chose honesty, then we can begin the struggle to reclaim our real humanity.
Next we bring into this mix the vastly wealthy American transnational corporation.
Businesses exist to make profit. Corporations are a type of business association, ones with special legal powers and durability. They have been a usual part of the business environment since the fifteenth century. International corporations were the muscle behind European colonization in the second half of the last millennium, but in that era of horse and sail, their power was a fraction of what it is today. Some corporations have now grown gigantic, actually becoming global forces with more power and resources than some countries.
Actually the largest corporations derive power not only from wealth but because they can fluidly migrate to whichever nation offers the least legal restraints, the cheapest labor, the most amenable economies and the friendliest politics. In this sense they float above the world's constraints.
But as a rule American corporations differ sharply from the nation which hosts them. They are alien to the notion of democratic responsiveness, internal or external. In the universe of corporations everything focuses on the acquisition of resources, labor, and markets. These are the sources of power. Inside corporations Equality hides her face.
Corporations are not elected, so they are concerned with nobody's approval. Aside from occasional shareholder meetings, they never ask the public for ideas or permission. Nor do the workers elect their leaders. Inside, most business corporations are steeply hierarchical structures, in which employees' freedom to do what they want is openly bought for the wage. They are not responsive to the will of those they employ; some have inner dynamics that are feudal; some of their hierarchies are also jungles of dysfunction. In democratic America most corporations are iridescent examples of autocracy, thriving on soil where the Constitution guarantees everybody's freedom and equality.
Nevertheless, the overwhelming portion of our population denies any problem. Charles Derber, among several writing on this topic, believes there are specific reasons we don't even think about corporations. First, we are all educated to look elsewhere, for instance to unchecked government, as the primary threat to freedom. Second corporations make and sell our creature comforts, so we can't tamper with them without threatening our prosperity. Third, we feel powerless. The concentration of corporate power is inverse to people's feelings of personal power. Fourth, we see no alternative (48).
Powers without Obligation
If wealth is the only standard we use to judge, then we have to admit corporations are staggering successes and everything to venerate. They absorb people's lives. We consume their products daily, use their services hourly, rely on them for information. We are dependent. We compete to work in them.
What protects them is that we are taught the system is rational. We are also taught that the goodness of a society depends on how well its topmost members are doing, so the higher our topmost members, the more they are discussed with awe.
The natural foe of corporations is government. But international corporations are so wealthy they slide over governments. They have become like tourists in their own country. As they lose national loyalties, they come close to becoming powers without obligation. As the largest transnational corporations grow, they become sovereign and untouchable (49).
The Corporate Personality
Roughly there are, I suppose, two kinds of people. The first divides the world into Good versus Bad. The second divides the world into the Strong versus Weak. These two types never can communicate. Among the latter, the concern is never to be caught weak because hell takes the hindmost, and among them all talk about goodness and ethics is irrelevant, and every effort is given to staying strong. This second type infests corporations. They are refractory to talk of humanity and you can shout all you want and they will not listen; every ounce of their attention is given to their competition.
Their rules of engagement are Darwinian.
Large scale competition among these massive corporations is what upgrades greed from whimsical excess to lethal force.
Two Areas of Corporate Control
First, Christopher Lasch points out that private universities depend on corporations, through investments, grants, or otherwise; and wherever their money is used, corporations influence state universities too. Consequently you will find free discussion on university campuses on almost any topic but one. Academic debate is not used to deconstruct the corporations that feed them.
The second important area of control is corporation ownership of the media.
Through corporate competition, we now live in a system in which a few colossal media conglomerates dominate the news outlets. A typical conglomerate owns film studios, television studios, publishing houses, retail outlets, theaters, newspapers, music studios, cable channels, and in some cases, amusement parks. This oligopoly of conglomerates is small. It has overwhelming financial power, and it is not responsive to the will of the public.
Corporations exist for profit, so the news has become a commercial product. Largely, the same mentality making decisions about entertainment is now making news decisions (and the two, according to Neal Gabler, are increasingly difficult to tell apart (50)).
Analyst Robert McChesney (51) says commercialization of the news has been a slowly growing process, starting in the 1840s when it was realized that selling news could actually make an entrepreneur money. Greed rather than journalistic standards took journalism astray in the era of the Yellow Press when stories were written for what sold and all the money came in from readers. Later on, newspaper owners started getting bigger money from advertisers. Nobody objected, because then as now, the myth is that the prime enemy of a free press was the government, that competitive free market capitalism would always keep the media unbiased and democratic.
We do have some control over which media programs we watch. We still can choose among television channels, but the overwhelming majority of channels are commercial, and corporations exert fine-grained control over the consumer's viewing diet. And unlike Canada's and Britain's, America's noncommercial channels are not guaranteed by the government. They depend on grants, charity and viewer contributions. They cannot hope for the stability, size and power of their commercials rivals.
The result? Television news viewers are carpet-bombed with advertising. Advertisers actually survey for the kind of news that is interesting to the viewers who have money to buy products. Advertising firms are so influential that current journalism avoids antagonizing them and politicians avoid antagonizing them. McChesney says their control extends to blacking out certain topics. So while education, drug testing, gay rights, religion are mentioned on commercial television, other topics such as the representativeness of the media system is a topic that is never aired. Social class issues are avoided. If we live in a society of inequality, then we can wonder, every time the television shows us the upper reaches of abundant success, which scenes of poverty have been excised. Programs about the poor are rare.
In effect, says McChesney,"media firms effectively write off the bottom 15-50 percent of society." (52)
All of which, he continues, is undermining democracy.
Among McChesney's remedies: first, make how the media are used a political issue. Second, a separate 1% tax on advertising would raise substantial revenues (he estimates $1.5 billion annually) which could be used to subsidize the nonprofit media.
We absorb from the television, and that is what advertisers want.
We take advertising seriously. Over a hundred billion dollars is spent annually on advertising. Its goal is to occupy the drive and psyche of the nation with wants, so that the nation will spend.
But the media are doing much more.
It is decided not to show on television the varieties of fear in our rooming houses and alleys where people live in the lowest reaches of poverty. It is decided not to show our hungry people living in tilting rural shacks. Nor the ranks of exhausted faces in city sweatshops. Lost, abject, hostile, desperate, these people's glances are pulled aside by complicit belief that failure is the lot of the damned. These people are quite available for filming and quite imageable. Instead, television is filled with cacophonous distraction.
Contradictions are withheld in the news. For instance, new technology is lionized in commercials. But technology itself is amoral. For example, it is also making torture easier. No one would mythologize the kind of free market where people made profits marketing whips and thumbscrews, but a recent Amnesty International investigation reports that currently more than fifty U.S. companies manufacture equipment like stun belts and shock batons designed specifically for use on humans (these devices inflict great pain but leave little physical evidence) (53). Difficult topics encourage thought, and they take time away from commercials.
War on Logic
Somehow the painful gap that exists between poverty and abundance must be anesthetized. Television is the means. We stuff television reality in the gap. Twenty-four hours every day commercial television is an ongoing polychromatic display of games, short dramas with gunplay and florid sex, perpetually interrupted by iridescent advertisements. Television both provokes fear and promises ecstasy in ultra short attention spans. It feeds a national obsession with beauty, teasing with glossy bodies, glossy cars, luscious scenery.
What is shown in commercials is overflowing abundance, specifically in terms of climactic moments. Now a race is run and now a prize is taken; now a man works for all of a second and a half, then it's time for beers; now all the cooking has been done, and a sumptuous meal is ready (54). The troubling theme is that human effort is noisily trivialized in commercials. This is the narcotic. Television lathers a bright, noisy blur over anything like sustained effort, perseverance, focused long term goals, and over a society with chronic stresses.
The evening news systematically distorts normal time. Downtown riots in Seattle are given less than a minute (some of which is the reporter's talking face), shift to shots of a dog frolicking in a fountain, shift to minutes of a freeway chase. The picturesque is pursued, the serious is trivialized.
These are moves in a war against logic. And if you watch television, you are having your thinking disrupted. The busy-ness of rapid shifts of focus, the effervescent color, the edgy, dramatic music, all make it difficult for viewers to build independent ideas.
But instead of asking what the frenetic distraction is about, we follow suit, with impulse. It's not just that advertisers say, you can solve your problems by drinking our wines or wearing this underwear. It's not just that each product is introduced as if it was the future of mankind. It's that the commercial saturation has been effective. No one mentally argues with the advertising. The real loss is that advertising is now accepted as if it was information.
As with any other drug, we need increasing strengths. The only way to find out what television is doing to you after years of watching is to turn it off for a month. Turn it on again after abstinence, and it seems like a television's bid for our attention is like repeatedly shooting a pistol into a chandelier.
Television also grows neuroses in the corners of its watchers. It grows invidious comparisons in us. Comparison shopping, comparison socializing - eventually we live life by the method of comparisons. Television is carefully producing hordes of viewers who are good at one judgment, namely, whether the neighbor or the person sitting across the room is a little better or a little worse off. This powerful judgment, 'I'm a notch better than he; I'm not quite as attractive as she', is what Alfred Adler diagnosed as a neurotic style (55), with powerful motives to compensate. Television grows envy in us, and the fix is to acquire. The result is a powerful narcissism, and an increase in the rates of depression (56) among watchers who cannot keep up, unable to match their lives to television's perfection.
Greed, like many addictions, is all about the sudden and spectacular. Advertising is passionately decorative, if thin as a billboard. It serves the sudden and spectacular.
Against images of poverty, fear and hunger, television also churns routine optimism into its daily programming. All is delivered in a happy, chatty style. More, each day, television will be noisily emptied out and reinstalled the same.
In a free society, some people's greed inevitably means deprivation for others. This does not require environmental limits, it only requires persistent and competitive self-promotion, and in a vast nation whose economy is two hundred years devoted to these principles, we now inhabit a society with a small fraction of astronomically wealthy individuals towering over a growing mass in poverty. America is arguably now more unequal than any of the original European cultures, yet we cling to and proselytize a horribly outdated economic theory which implies equality but actually delivers more inequality. Greed is the outstanding wrong because it reverses the utilitarian ethic. It produces the greatest good for the smallest number. Democracy's founding virtues are freedom and equality, so greed without restraint, producing great inequalities, becomes an undemocratic force.
This is an amazingly complex economy but we still raise our young on sleeveless country myths. They never explain a market's preferences for ensured scarcities, designed inequalities, and increasingly segregated economic classes. Our schoolbooks teach, after the demise of communism, that there is no superior alternative to Smithian economics. Adherents believe that free market capitalism is the end of history.
The reflexive defense, of course, is that we already have remedies. That we protect our poor with aid and support, that our government provides a safety net for the least fortunate in the form of welfare and food stamp programs.
These programs are a shambling failure. Reports detail the thin efforts of our sprawling agencies to get food to Americans who are now hungry. In California, of the millions who need aid, only 45% of the eligible are able to get food stamps even when they qualify. The other largest states show similar agency breakdowns. The hungry are trying other sources, so demand at food banks is rising (57). But Americans turning to emergency facilities are too often rebuffed. Cities are failing to meet an average of 26 percent of requests for emergency shelter, 30 percent of requests by homeless families. Government safety nets are simply broken, and at this writing some states are cutting back further (58).
We do not properly protect our poor. Decades-long efforts in the Great Society program and the War on Poverty have failed to improve opportunities for the poorest Americans. As an index of our current concern, consider the national allocation for Food Stamps. It stands at 0.0017 of the Federal Budget (59). Already tiny, Federal food assistance allocations actually declined from 1995 to 1999 (60).
I'll sketch other options that don't work.
What about private charity? Since droves of homeless people (one quarter of whom are children) still roam the big cities, since we have unfed hungry, and since it has been that way for a long time and is not getting better, private charity has obviously been ineffective. It is too little, or sporadic and unreliable.
What about the churches? Their purpose for existence includes helping the weak and needy. Curious for numbers, I divided the number of homeless (conservatively estimated at 700,000 on any given night, 2 million sometime during the year) by the number of Christian churches. This nation is filled with churches: the World Almanac lists over 330,000 Christian houses of worship (61). If each church took in 6 homeless, there would be no more homelessness. (We are taught that God and money don't mix. But actually the struggle between church and capitalism has always been subtle.)
What about positive thinking? With enough love and trust and hope and unity and sensitivity and inclusiveness, will antisocial greed disappear? Well, we might hope that goliath profiteering corporations will desist in their exploiting, voluntarily come to their knees and want to be part of godly world harmony. But they will not. Universal tolerance will not stop transnational corporations wringing their profit from the sweat of laborers' faces. And these bromides do not create change, just a lot of weary smiles from well wishers. On the topic of attitude, we'll treat smiling rationalizations the same, such as the rationalization that 'greed is the sin that's good for the economy'. This sort of solution is just a delay which will float us over relatively good times. At present we have relatively high employment, so the vast majority of Americans are at least earning some amounts of money. But this is like a tide risen high, which covers all manner of unsightly things on the sea floor. They are not gone. Should the tide go out, they will reappear. Opines business professor Jim Johnson, "If you ask where all this could be heading, in the event of an economic downturn, we could see another 1992 civil unrest." (62).
Stopping the Gap from Becoming Wider
Harvard's John Rawls (63) has a way to repair a whole society skewed into these inequalities. Rawls asserts the misery of some is simply not made acceptable by having a greater good, as proposed by utilitarianism, because that violates the principle of justice. First Rawls insists that in addition to freedom and equality, there must be a prior value in democracy, justice. And that economic rationality and justice should forever be opposed.
Rawls insists on a shift in focus. We should not judge a culture by how its topmost members are doing, but by how it treats its lowest. His solutions follow. First, this society should decide how low any member can go. That establishes minimum rights. It requires we identify the least-advantaged person in society, and draw focus to him. Next, the very top and the very bottom of society should be (and all intermediate levels should be) connected, as if by a loose linked chain. Then if the top rises, it pulls the bottom up with it. If the bottom moves up, that closes the gap toward equality. This arrangement does not prevent any upward rise; but it establishes consequences on movements at the top.
We must look down. Even Business Week pointed out that if the current wave of prosperity recedes, America's many social ills, with hunger and homelessness, could return with a vengeance, editorializing that the Federal Reserve and Congress should be guided in their policy actions by what's happening at the bottom of society, not by the bubble at the top (64).
The mystique of poverty has to be cracked. A television series 'Lifestyles of the Broken and Hungry' would not top the popularity charts, but my point is that if media paid attention to the bottom rungs with one-tenth the insistence in our commercial advertising, remedial changes would occur. Further, public service messages resurrecting the concept of the common good, would be a beginning.
Actually remedies for greed do not have to be expensive, nor big, organized programs. Primary education depends on the skills of individual teachers, and if talented educators can reinstall the Golden Rule (Do as you would be done by) in their primary classrooms, some of the damage could be reversed. We need preventatives. Greed has to be reinstalled as a moral wrong, and in religious circles, as a sin.
Up the educational ladder, remedies will be resisted. Here lives the fashion for nonjudgmentalism. An extension of moral relativism, this trend to universal acceptance is a couple of decades old and "Who am I to judge?" is now the standard of the gentle classes and educated elite, even spreading to exotic healing practices and 12-Step programs where it is thought that to suspend judgment of self and others is for the betterment of society. This is nonsense. Comfort only brings inaction, nonjudgmentalism is moral vacuum (65), and eventually we will have no conscience to stop what is happening.
High on the academic ladder, of course, is economics but our best economic theory has delivered us contradictions and reverses. Volumes produced by economists, all written with graphite dispassion, seem to promote opposites, and you wonder if a coup was carried out by those adept at complicated thought. Just drive through any big city, you will see newsstands sporting magazines with glossy coverage of billionaires, these newsstands adjacent to people living among girders and sewage drains, alleys, scaffoldings and grates.
Among the social sciences, psychology may provide a specific remedy. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) (66) is a standard used by all psychotherapists. It is a compendium of all mental illnesses and it is used as a diagnostic tool in training psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and social workers. This book has been expanding through succeeding editions as more and more mental conditions have been described (which has expanded the domain of clinicians so far it is now said that about half America's population could be diagnosed with some mental pathology or other (67)). It is time that greed be listed in DSM IV. With well directed psychological research of course greed will turn out to be a personality trait with a distribution in the population, and personality tests will be able to screen for extremes.
So there is a moral cause here. But the average person hangs back from active protest.
The problem is, even if we are not personally greedy, we have connections to corporations that are. We are happy consumers. Challenging the company we work for - would that be hypocrisy? Second, activism, we think, is radical action, and what about all that street rant "if you're not with us, you're against us!" - but we cannot rebel because our corporation is also our rent, and we enjoy the good living we make, and we're not giving that up.
Perhaps that explains why our most articulate writers are so quiet on this topic. They also look within. So, bluntly, we need a whole new strategy for change, in which a person who feels he is part of the problem may also be part of the solution.
Enter some new thinking. Max Bruinsma is a sharp critic of the damage wrought by contemporary advertising in the service of relentless acquisition. But times have changed, he says, and he argues the polarizing slogans of past social revolutions (you're either with us or against us) don't apply. We're in a historical shift. The modern activist is different. The rationale: culture today is driven by commercial advertising. In it, a particularly worrisome new trend is for advertisers to soften up our thinking with billboard-size paradoxes. Building-size ads fill our view and state that buying a very mainstream computer (Mac) is 'thinking different'. Across the street another billboard shouts that acquiring a glossy SUV is a singular act of rebellion. Bruinsma quotes more examples: "Sometimes you gotta break the rules," (Burger King), "Innovate, don't imitate" (Hugo Boss), "Be an original" (Chesterfield cigarettes). The central insistence of these is that conforming = rebelling. And we remember the Orwellian slogans, Peace = War, Slavery = Freedom which, in 1984, reduced a future society's minds to value-free mush.
Well, we can follow suit. We can generate our own examples of contradictions. So, perhaps, commercial success and social responsibility are not incompatible anymore. Everything is possible if you use self-contradiction; you are able to both work for a company, and rebel against it. Corporate rebellion = loyalty.
This leads to a technique a 'Sixties activist, Rudy Dutschke, once called "the long march through the institutions." It is a long term and less bloody strategy. Go in, behave - and take over. The new culture agent is stylishly dressed, well paid, and works in an plush ad agency, designing resplendent ads which promote the return to honesty and social justice, humaneness, equity and the common good (68) .
The next revolution will be inside corporations.
As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer we drop our pretenses to humanitarian democracy, instead salute material excess, accept Darwinian business ethics, and pin up as our national polestar the most powerful corporations.
Money and effort maintains a particular way of seeing and evaluating our society; we focus on the topmost members, cover current inequalities with a rotating blur of nearly a trillion dollars of advertising a year, and by not paying attention to the lowest, we deny them. But they are there. Inevitably, as our economic tree reaches up, its roots grow further down.
It is not enough to say hopefully we accumulate layers of experience from error and progress. Technology will not deliver us equity. Logic has not delivered us equity.
We want our morality back.
For readers thinking these themes overwrought, I'll describe a small game in which you can watch greed in the person sitting next to you. Three people sit around a kitchen bowl. You, the fourth person, with a timer, start off placing ten small items in the bowl - quarters, dollar bills, or nuts. Tell the three players the goal is for each of them to get as many items as they can. Tell them one other thing before they start: every ten seconds (you have your watch ready) you will look in the bowl, and double the number of items remaining there, by replenishing from an outside source ( a separate pile of quarters on the side).
In the original Nuts Game, I used hardware nuts, and the players were college students. You would think the players would figure out that if they all waited, and didn't take anything out of the bowl for a while, then the contents of the bowl would soon get very big, automatically doubling every ten seconds. Eventually they could each divide up a pot that had grown large. But in fact, sixty percent of these groups never make it to the first 10-second replenishment cycle. They each grabbed all they could as soon as they could, leaving nothing in the bowl to be doubled, and each player wound up with none or a few items. This can be an energetic game. I've seen the bowl knocked to the floor and I've seen broken fingernails in the greedy melee. In the original game, players are not allowed to talk. Even when they are allowed to talk, not all groups collaboratively work out a patient, conserve-as-you-go playing style, necessary for eventual big scores. They don't trust each other.
This makes a good classroom demonstration of what greed can do. Actually mathematicians have designed a variety of these games, microcosms of the free economic process (69). Behind them all is a problem always nagging at Adam Smith economics. In the short run, what is good for the individual is bad for the group. The game is a microcosm of a community sharing a slowly regenerating resource (clean water, timber, whales) and individual greed can actually destroy the common good. The game involves two opposing rationalities: what is rational for the individual vs. what is rational for the group. And the resolution has less to do with reason than building a shared morality.
1. GREED copyright © Julian Edney 2002 and first published on the internet 2003 at
www.g-r-e-e-d.com. GREED II copyright © Julian Edney 2005 and first
on the internet 2005 at www.g-r-e-e-d.com.
2. "Fine wines are hot lots at auctions in New York." 2002, New York Times, May
27, p. A 12.
3. Forbes.com Magazine, 12 April 2001.
4. Reich, Robert B, 1991. "Secession of the successful." New York Times Magazine,
January 20, p. 16.
5. Galvin, J. "Wretched excess." 2000, Ziff Davis Smart Business for the New
Economy, August 1, p. 122.
6. Nord, M., Andrews, M., Carlson, S. Household Food Security in the United
2004. United States Department of Agriculture report ERS-ERR-11, October 2005.
7. "3 in 10 Americans face poverty, study says." 1998, Los Angeles Times, August
10, Section A p. 15.
8. "State picks up house seat as Sunbelt grows." 2000, Los Angeles Times,
December 29, Section A p.1.
9. Converting old wealth into modern terms is tricky but it appears in 1774 the top
1% owned 14.6% of the national wealth. By 1989 it owned 36.3%. In Gordon J.S
"Numbers game," 1992, Forbes, October 9 p 48.
10. Murphey, C. "Are the rich cleaning up?" 2000, Fortune, 24 September. p. 252
11. See for example: Childs, J.M. 2000. Greed. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, p.36
12. Los Angeles Times, 2000, December 12. Section A. p. 1.
13. Profile of the nation: An American portrait. 2000, Farmington Hills, MI., Gale Group.
14. "Families total 43% of homeless, survey reports." 1993, Los Angeles Times, December 22. Section A p. 1
15. Rawls, J. A theory of justice. 1971. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.
16. "Study finds widening gap between rich, poor." 2000, Los Angeles Times October 20. Section B p.3.
17. Cook, P.J. and Frank, R.H. The winner-takes-all society: Why the few at the top get so much more than the rest of us. 1995. New York. Viking Books.
18. Vleminckx, K. and Smeeding, T.M. (Eds) Child well-being, child poverty and child policy in modern nations. 2001.Bristol, U.K.: The Policy Press. (Available from the University of Toronto Press.)
19. Durant, W. and Durant, A. The lessons of history 1968, New York: MJF Books.
20. Surgeon General aims campaign at rising suicide rate. 2001, Los Angeles Times May 3. Section A p. 14.
21. Lasn, K. and Grierson, B. "America the blue." 2000, Utne Reader. September. P.74
22. Lane, R.E. The loss of happiness in market democracies. 2000. New Haven: Yale University Press.
23. America Online News, 2001, by Scott Lindlaw. 10 May.
24. Derber, C. The wilding of America. 2002. New York. Worth Publishers.
25. Dostoevsky, F.M. Notes from underground. 1864/1992. New York: Bantam Books.
26. "US crime study sees society in trouble." 1999. Los Angeles Times. 6 December. Section A p.22
27. Murphy, C. "Are the rich cleaning up?" 2000, Fortune 24 September. P. 252.
28. "Is America the land of the poor?" Investor’s Business Daily 1999, 27 December p. A.1.
29. Freeman, R.B. "Toward an apartheid economy?" Harvard Business Review 1996. Sept-Oct p. 114-121
30. Derber, C. Ibid.
31. Childs, J. Greed. 2000. Minneapolis, Fortress Press. P. 24.
32. Rawls, J. Ibid ,p.33.
33. Bly, R. The sibling society. New York: Vintage Books. 1977.
34. Kuhn, H. and Nasar, S. (Eds) The essential John Nash. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press. 2002.
35. Lasch, C. The revolt of the elites and the betrayal of democracy. 1995. New York: Norton.
36. Rose, S.J. Social stratification in the United States. 2000, New York: The New Press.
37. McGuire, C. Social stratification and mobility patterns. American Sociological Review. 1950, v. 15, p.200. A historical study cited by Gabler found that in 1850, 2 per cent of the wealthy of that period had been born poor while 90 percent were descended from families of affluence and social position: Neal Gabler, Life: The movie. 1998.New York: Vintage Books. p. 30.
38. Attributed to Robert Monks, quoted in H. Scutt, The trouble with capitalism. New York: Zed Books 1998. P. 176
39. Ryan, R.M. and Deci, E.L. On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudiamonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology. 2001, 52, 141-166.
40. Mark Twain is listed as a caricaturist and a satirist but this does not change my point because the very young do not know enough to distinguish satire (some adults can’t either).
41. Sagoff, M. "Do we consume too much?" Atlantic Monthly, June 1997, p. 80.
42. Lomborg, B. The skeptical environmentalist. 2001. New York: Cambridge University Press.
43. Benedict, R. Patterns of culture. 1934/1989 Boston: Houghton Mifflin. The concept
of synergy appeared in unpublished lectures Benedict gave in 1941 and all
references are derivative, such as M.M. Caffrey: Ruth Benedict, l989 University of
Texas Press. p. 308-309
44. Fisher, C.S., Hout, M., Jankowski, M.S., Lucas, S.R., Swidler, A., Voss, K. Inequality
by design. 1996, Princeton N.J. Princeton University Press.
45. Calabresi, G. and Bobbitt, P. Tragic choices. 1978. New York: Norton & Co.
46. Ibid, p. 134
47. Ibid. p. 132
48. Derber, C. Corporation nation. 2000. New York: St Martin's Griffin.
49. Lasn, K. and Grierson, B. American the blue.Utne Reader , September 2000. p.74.
50. Gabler, N. Life: the movie . 1998. New York :Vintage Books.
51. McChesney, R.W. Corporate media and the threat to democracy. The Open Media
Pamphlet Series. 1997. New York, Seven Stories Press.
52. Ibid.. p. 23
53. "Torture is accelerating globally, report says." Los Angeles Times. October 18, 2000.
Part A. p. 10.
54. Leonard, G. Mastery. 1991. New York: Penguin Books.
55. Adler, A. The neurotic constitution. 1926/1998. North Stratford, N.H., Ayer Company Publishers, Inc.
56. See footnote 18.
57. "Foodstamp program is failing in California." Los Angeles Times 28 April 2001. p. A 15. A second report is "Many miss out on food stamps" Los Angeles Times 23 June 2001. p. B 1. The second article quotes the average food stamp allocation at $73 per person per month.
58. "States cut back coverage for poor." Los Angeles Times. 25 February 2002. p. A 1.
59. Food aid programs are administered by the Department of Agriculture. In 2000 total
Federal receipts were $1,956,252 million of which $274,448 million went to all food
programs, of which the Food Stamp program is one, for which the outlay was $3,392
million. Statistical Abstracts of the United States. U.S. Census Bureau, 2000.
60. U.S. Food Assistance (domestic) The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2000. Mahwah, N.J. Primedia Reference, Inc. 2000.
61. The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2000. 2000. Mahwah, N.J. Primedia Reference, Inc.
62. Quoted in "Study finds widening gap between rich, poor" Los Angeles Times
October 20, 2000. Part B p. 3.
63. Rawls, J. A theory of justice. 1999. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Revised edition. (The first edition is better, in my opinion.)
64. "The poorest are again losing ground." Business Week 23 April 2001, p. 130.
65. "If I'm OK and you're OK, are there any bad guys?" Los Angeles Times, 27 January 2002 p. E 1.
66. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th. Ed.) Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.
67. J.W. Kalat, Introduction to psychology. 6th Ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Wadsworth. 2002.
68. Bruinsma, M. "Culture agents: For closet rebels in the inside game, it's time to speak out." Adbusters , Sept/Oct 2001. (Adbusters is unpaged).
69. More recent experimental work focuses on the effects of personal reputation among players: (1) C. Wedekind and M. Milinki, "Cooperation through image scoring in humans," Science, 2000, 288, 850-852, and (2) M.A. Nowak, K.M. Page, K. Sigmund, "Fairness versus reason in the Ultimate Game," Science, 2000, 289, 1173-1175.