Abraham Lincoln tells the story of a farmer who claimed that he really wasn’t greedy. All he ever wanted was the land that adjoined his. It is apparent that much of the economic power of any society rests with the capacity of some of its citizens to do well—very well. A rising tide can lift all ships. In our recent history, however, most wealth has not trickled down, but gushed up, and the rising tide has only managed to lift all yachts. Bernie Sanders is right, and hopefully his focus on this matter has had a profound impact on his party.
There has been a dramatic redistribution of wealth, but it has not been through some socialist conspiracy. Why not call it what it is? Greed! This economic redistribution has been generated by the bed-partners of the already affluent and the politicians who protect them. While it is government’s role to keep these dynamic forces in balance, Congress has been looking the other way recently.
Of all the deadly sins that infect the body politic, greed is probably the most insidious. If you listen to some Christians you might think the worst sins are all sexual. Look at their list of evil practices, all the way from homosexuality and abortion to salacious books. People can starve to death by the millions and one hears not a word of judgment about the economic and political systems which allow that to happen. While the Bible says a few things about sex, it has a hundred times more to say about injustice.
Most of history’s wars have been instigated by some nation’s greedy effort to control the land adjoining its territory. Donald Trump, for instance, believes that the oil in the Near East really belongs to us, and we should just seize it.
Early Christians said radix omnium malorum avaritia, “the root of all evil is avarice.” Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh faiths affirm that greed lies close to the heart of evil.
There is a qualitative difference between a desperately hungry Oliver Twist, who asks for a bit more, and the super rich who say they would be secure if only they were a little bit richer. There is survey data to suggest that the richer a person is, the smaller his or her charitable contributions will be.
Human survival depends on the equitable sharing of the earth’s resources. A sane society will generate appropriate safeguards against unfettered greed. In 2010’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” Gordon Gekko asserts, “Greed is good.”
One might think that religious institutions would be the first line of defense against such a distortion. Alas, these days something called “the prosperity gospel” has made greed fashionable by religious consent. “God wants you to be rich,” intones the TV evangelist, “So plant a seed, and (by sending me a big check) God will multiply your harvest.”
While not challenging the right of any hard-working American to do well, the government is mandated to secure some level of economic justice. The graduated tax system, which has been in place for decades, is one avenue. When Warren Buffet’s income is taxed, for example, at a lesser percentage than his secretary’s, something is out of balance. And Buffet is ethical enough to know it. Appropriately taxing excessive wealth would, to the immeasurable benefit of the nation, moderate the economic disparity we now endure.
There is legitimacy to the capitalist system and its invisible hand, in which buyers and sellers meet in disciplined markets. But these days, the invisible hand is being manipulated from behind a curtain of hedge funds, insurance swaps, short selling and other devices designed to guarantee that the biggest hogs get even bigger. These devices, employed to further pad already flush pockets, mark the bastardization of the legitimate market.
Greed may have become our tower of Babel, and in an effort to build it beyond the reach of the economic gods, it occasionally comes crashing down on all of us. And to the discredit of the greed system, some of the worst offenders have escaped with lucrative bonuses and golden parachutes, while millions of others are homeless, jobless and penniless.