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Member since: Tue Nov 16, 2004, 03:14 PM
Number of posts: 7,201

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On Greed

We often blame the excesses of capitalism on greed, or excessive greed. The first thing we should note is that the capitalist system is motivated by greed. Capitalism is legalized greed. Capitalists perceive a need or a desire for various goods and services: oil and its byproducts, clothing, food, food served in restaurants, trinkets and gadgets, means of communication. They then set about producing them as cheaply as possible, and selling them for the maximum price the market will bear. And we buy: as much as we need, and, urged on by advertising, as much as we can afford, and sometimes more. As these processes play out, the capitalist, the “owner,” may make some very handsome profits indeed. But they couldn’t make the profits without the market to buy their products. In America, our cultural norms tolerate all these desires, for profits by the owners, and goods by the buyers, as the norm, the best available economic system.

Greed, then, is a normal part of our economic system. Capitalism works in part by channeling everybody’s natural desire for more than they have or need into orderly processes. There are stores, warehouses, catalogs and websites to display the goods, there are delivery services to get them to the buyers, and banking services to handle the payments. What our understanding of capitalism doesn’t provide us with is a measure for deciding when a lot becomes too much. At what point does the need to keep a business running become destructive? When profits exceed 2%, or 5%, or 30% or 45%? Economists don’t hold these discussions, because they have made it their business to discuss economic systems as though they were natural phenomena, like bird migrations, or the mating habits of whales, or the component planets in our solar system. Greed, as it is used these days, seems to be a moral accusation: those who are greedy have a vice, and they need to curb their desires for more for the good of their souls, and society at large.

There is an analogy with the controversy over abortion: the pro-life party accuses the women who seek abortions of being morally cruel to the innocent life they bear. Abortion seekers are really killing babies, seems to be their judgment. The problems arise when the pro-life party tries to control abortion by making it illegal. As soon as they try that, all the messy other realities of child bearing are exposed, and the laws don’t work to save innocent lives. Anti-abortion legislation, doesn’t work, but the pro-life party gets to enjoy their own moral superiority over the abortion seekers.

All of us capitalists get to feel morally superior to the owners, or at least the “big” owners: Big Oil, Big Pharma, Walmart, Big anything, when we call them greedy. But we don’t ask for a change in the system, or even to control the system as it’s now practiced. It may be that we could keep the main components of capitalism, while legally controlling profit levels, or at least executive salaries. You will have noticed that any discussion of controlling profits is immediately labeled as redistribution of wealth and socialism, and the moral outrage turns to moral panic. And Ronald Reagan is elected President.

I would like to see Pres. Biden, Sen. Sanders, and of course Sen. Warren, develop a plan to curb some of the excesses of unfettered capitalism, just to prove that discussion is possible, and even healthy. The hard line capitalists like to pretend that any restriction of capitalism at all brings on Armageddon. What if it doesn’t spell doom, but salvation?

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