We all know that the 1987 movie, Wall Street, popularized a slogan, uttered in the movie by Michael Douglas, “Greed is good!” As Gordon Gekko, Douglas says, “The point it, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good…Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” We also are somewhat conscious of the growing disparity between the income of CEO’s and factory-floor workers, once considered normal at 30:1, now approximates 300+:1. What are the factors that have resulted in this seismic, and totally unjustifiable shift? On a superficial level, the numbers tell a story of corporate greed, unleashed partly through the complicity of a United States Congress so deeply embedded in their own dependency on the cash-surges from those corporate accounts. They also signal another seismic shift in national values away from the “public good” or the “common good” to the private “good” of a miniscule minority of mostly men who not only drank the “greed” kool-aid, but actually became intoxicated on its vapours. Disdaining phrases like the “nanny state” were bandied about in a blitz-campaign to denigrate social programs, food stamps, public schools, single-payer health care, mental health infrastructure and programs, even basic services like transit, municipal water supplies and the pipes that conveyed clean water into taxpayers’ homes. Everything about private enterprise, corporate growth, including the scorched earth policy and practice of millions of “redundancies” (newspeak for firings) was to be considered almost sacred, while all of those public services, that were designed to meet those once-considered basic needs of ordinary people, were left to rot, atrophy, erode, collapse, or merely disintegrate, literally and metaphorically.
Writing in Psychology Today March 25, 2009, Stephen Diamond, PhD, in a piece entitled, “Is Greed Ever Good? The Psychology of Selfishness” writes this:
Greed, like lust and gluttony, is traditionally considered a sin of excess. But greed tends to be applied to the acquisition of material wealth in particular. St. Thomas Aqu9nas said that greed is ‘a sin against God, jut as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemn things eternal for the sake of temporal things.’ So greed or avarice was seen by the (c)hurch as sinful due to its overvaluation of the mundane rather than immaterial or spiritual aspects of existence….Both greed and gluttony correspond closely with what Guatama Buddha called desire: an overattachment to the material world and its pleasures which is at the root of all human suffering. Greed is about never being satisfied with what one has, always wanting and expecting more. IT is an insatiable hunger. A profound for, of gluttony. Where does greed breed? Paradoxically, greed arises from too little inner selfishness. That’s right. Greed grows from ignorance (unconsciousness) of one’s self. Addicts always want more of what gets them high, gives them pleasure, enables escape from anxiety, suffering, themselves. They greedily crave that which their substance or rituals of choice provide, be it drugs, sex, gambling, food, pornography, internet, television, fame, power, or money. We all have our personal addictions: workaholism, rationalism, shopaholism, perfectionism etc. This is our future attempt to fill a spiritual and emotional emptiness within, to gratify some long-buried need, to heal or at least numb some festering psychological wound.
Much of what Dr. Diamond writes has seeped into the collective consciousness of many people in North America, at least. However, the implications of these cognitive and emotional realizations are also invaded and countered by a persistent inner voice (born of a myriad of seeds) that keeps crying out for more of whatever we think or believe or imagine will fill up our emptiness, and in the process somehow make us “right” or “better” or “more respected” or “more important” at “at least better than those who previously judged us believed we would ever become.
The capitalist system of economy, now ubiquitously wrapped around the collective cultures of many, if not most, western nations, is a highly tuned and thereby highly effective honing and mining machine to “reap” the harvests of our individual and our shared emptinesses. In fact, we are bombarded by messages about how our lives will be “better” if only we purchase this product or service or both. And we are raising generations of young people who are unfamiliar with the facts of history that were not like this.
In his new book, Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power, Zachary Karabell, tells a different story about how capitalism once operated in the United States. Brown Brothers Harriman has survived two centuries “without going bust, or recklessly pursuing growth, or blowing its capital in any of the speculative bubbles from steamships and railroads to real estate and bitcoin….The vital ingredient of Brown Brothers’ success…is that the firm was not acting as an agent for ‘anonymous shareholders’. It was investing its own capital, and this all but required it act with prudence….Karabell…uses Brown Brothers as a lens into the nation’s growth, and especially in the early decades, it’s an apt device….(T)here is something quietly stirring in the tale of Alexander Brown, a Belfast linen merchant who emigrated …to Baltimore in 1800, and together with his four sons became first, a major linen importer, then a dealer in cotton, coffee, copper, iron and sugar, then a financier…. Their driving ethos was as much community as profit. …Alas, no amplification is needed to elicit our interest in the understated Brown. ‘Shoemaker, stick to thy last’ (was a favorite proverb in the Brown family…(Roger Lowenstein, The Wall Street Capitalists Who Put Morals Above Money, New York Times, May 21, 2021)
These pages have been devoted to underscoring the divergence of motive of the most wealthy Americans, away from the public trust, need, common good and toward a narcissistic selfishness founded on an emptiness of self, as well as a similar divergence among the uber wealthy internationally. Karbella is not opposed to money as an instrument in the growth and development of a nation. His contention is that the deployment of other people’s money in risk-filled ventures, only to be bailed out with public money when the risk fails, is the significant difference between Brown Brothers Harriman and more contemporary capitalists.
Writing in the Financial Times, May 11, 2021, Robert Armstrong, writes:
“Brown Brothers Harriman began to fade in the 1970’s, partly because of flagging energies but also because it remained a small, risk-averse partnership while high finance was becoming a game of speed, scale and aggression…Karabell thinks we would live in a more stable world if more companies practised this form of ‘sustainable capitalism,’ where bankers risk their own capital, not that of shareholders, and where service, not scale, is the main goal. There is surely truth in this, but it may also be that as technology and globalisation created unprecedented demands for capital at the end of the 20th century, only larger, more aggressive banks could get the job done, and the crashes of 1999 and 2008 were a cost that had to be paid. There is another possibility, too. The prudence, discretion, and moderation that defined Brown Brothers for much of its history reflected the values of the business community it served and, to an extent, of America as a whole. As those values have lost their vitality, it was inevitable that the banking industry would change. It may be, in other words, that we get the bankers we deserve.”
Let’s pause for a moment on Armstrong’s phrase, “technology and globalisation created unprecedented demand for capital…(that) only larger, more aggressive banks could get the job done”…..Is this not the requisite and inevitable lens of one who, depending on the circumstances, considers it essential that the old maxim of the “end justifies the means” is regarded as an in perpetuity clause in every business contract, as well as in the mind and heart and competence of every successful business operator.
Like a machine after its initial invention and design, by and for those who profit from it, it becomes a sacred cow that will continue to produce milk (profit) so long as the underpinning ideas that birthed it are maintained. And such maintenance can only be guaranteed by those whose personal success is married to everything necessary to keep the old cow producing milk. It is the “end” that justifies whatever means to achieve it that we are committed to questioning, and even to destroying, if that is what it takes to reverse the direction of the ‘ship of state’ that is killing the planet, that is rendering millions incapable of ever putting even a single foot on the ladder to domestic self-sufficiency, that is sentencing millions to lives of desperation, anger, bitterness, depression and perhaps even violence.
We are well past time to be aware of a glaring need to re-think, and to re-shape the way capitalism operates. And while Karbell’s book will not and cannot hold the key to the turn-around we need, it is a sophisticated wake-up call to those in the fast, and global lane, that the premises of their capitalism are, in a word, unsustainable. Who cares about their individual sustainability?
It is the long-term sustainability of corporations, as well as governments, unions, and those institutions that comprise the social and cultural fabric, not only of a community, but of a global community, that is under threat. And one of the root “frames” of this global atrophy is the halo that “fast capitalism” and narcissistic greed have attempted to install on the head of runaway capitalism.
It is a very short and easily conceivable step from runaway capitalism to runaway oligarchy. Models of, leadership, especially by those engaged in the rabid pursuit of their own personal agendas of self-aggrandizement, reinforce each other. When and where there are successful cleptocrats building lavish mansions hidden from public view (think Putin and others) and there are other more minor cleptocrats who depend on the largesse of those, like Putin, who fill their pockets, in return for absolute loyalty, silence and discretion….and the new world turns, “like the windmills of our minds”
The U.S. debt is, for the most part, held by China. China is in the process of withholding even co-operation in the pursuit of the origin of the COVID-19 virus. China is also in the process of invading the technological systems of every country willing to buy, and access to that technology is also accessible to the Chinese state and military apparatus. Fast and loose, in order to meet the demands of the new technology and the new needs for capital (hence the new way of doing banking and money generally) may well have spin-off impacts the likes of which we are completely ignorant.
And our shared blindness linked to our shared detachment from the levers of power, as well as from the vaults of cash that ‘run’ the world, at the top end, can and will only lead to a seeping into the fabric of many cultures, a sense of hopelessness, isolation, alienation and separation, that already infect millions of mostly silent and desperate people around the world.
Public displays of confidence, by those ‘paid’ to, or ‘charged with’ the responsibility to keep the powerful in power, echo the inflated public relations utterances from the depths of the Toronto Maple Leaf organization on the day when their team in about to play an elimination game against the Montreal Canadiens. “Great opportunity” to put the ghost of haunting failures to close out previous play-off campaigns is one way of inflating the moment to fit one’s desperation.
A similar inflation of rhetoric, coming from the political and the capitalist classes, cannot and will not cover over the real plight of the planet and the people who are trying to survive in circumstances they neither deserve nor can tolerate.
Are the rest of us too blind, or too detached or ??????????