Playing the 'Greed' Card

Bill Murchison

10/18/2011 12:01:00 AM - Bill Murchison

"The protest against corporate greed born last month on New York's Wall Street spread across the world Saturday," according to The Los Angeles Times. But hold on! The Times is engaged in a question-begging exercise -- one with tendencies that deserve to be, but certainly won't be, shut down promptly. Such is the nuttiness of our era.

"Greed" has brought us to this crummy pass. That's what we are to infer from these protesters, but they don't have proof. Greed is the motive principle of capitalism: More moola for me, the capitalist, less for you, the "99 percenters." The protesters want greed to stop now. But how? That's the sticking point: Nobody knows the means of legislating an end to the currently most conspicuous of the seven deadly sins.

A word about greed and capitalism seems called for. The occupiers of Wall Street and other financial centers seem hung up on the idea that business is a conspiracy against the common man. A widening of the gap between the very richest and, shall we say, the less rich -- a gap evident all over the world -- becomes evidence, in the occupiers' eyes, of the rottenness and corruption of the system.

The heart of the argument is too few people have too much money. The too few include Wall Street "fat cats," as our silver-tongued president calls them, baseball players, football players, singers, golfers, actors, actresses and so on. As a reminder that Wall Street tycoons have company in the ranks of the rich, consider that Charlie Sheen "earned" $40 million between May 2010 and May 2011; that Johnny Depp's haul from four Pirates of the Caribbean movies is estimated at $280 million; that the NFL's five highest paid quarterbacks (starting with Peyton Manning) average $20 million a year. They couldn't get by on less? Sheen couldn't make it on, oh, $100,000 bucks?

The president has likely inspired some of this resentment through his cadences about taxing people who don't need all the money they have (even though the richest one percent of Americans already pay 28.1 percent of federal taxes). The idea is that these people wouldn't have all this money if money weren't all they thought about sunup to sundown -- gimme, gimme, gimme, greed, greed, greed. It's all their fault we're in bad shape. Take it away from 'em! Break 'em to the ranks! Show 'em what it's like to leave the electric bill unopened for fear of seeing a heart-attack-inducing figure!

Such are the implications of playing the greed card -- long-suffering us against bad, evil them.

Isn't there a familiar ring to this song? Of course, it's the tune humanity sings without prompting in times of stress. The tumbrels roll toward the guillotine, and Madame Defarge's needles click incessantly.

Greed -- like pride, envy and anger -- is a theological offense, curable only by repentance and amendment of life. It is the story that rarely gets told. We, meaning humanity, blame systems from feudalism to capitalism that reward work, talent and sometimes just plain ol' luck. No system has done more to spread success and opportunity than has free market capitalism. Instinctively, we know that, but then we get in a snit when something in the system goes awry. Because we're unhappy, we want revenge on our supposed betrayers and traducers. Always a quantity of politicians is available to encourage that embarrassing sentiment.

Outsized rewards such as bank chieftains and NFL quarterbacks take home from the office are the price of a system that, with relatively little government direction, sets those rewards. What's the "right" reward with which to accommodate Peyton Manning? Possibly the Obama administration could set up a Bureau of Compensation to decide.

While we wait expectantly for that healing event, we might give thanks for the opportunity with which a free economy has endowed the hard working, the creative and the visionary. Yes, the fundamentally greedy, too, I'm afraid. In a land of true and lasting liberty, you make room for all.