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Greed and Fear

This culture makes us dream of gain and loss—but at what cost?

This post is in response to
Varieties of Truth?

Most people, I believe, would agree that selfishness is not the basis for a healthy, sustainable society.

Who of us wants a family where everyone looks out for themselves, a club where people are trying to undermine our status, or even a business where we must always watch our back. People need — and want — to trust one another. We want others to appreciate what we have to say, to laugh at our jokes, to be concerned when we tell them of an accident or illness. When we show up at a party, we want everyone to be happy to see us. To live otherwise — in an isolated, protective state — is a sadness.

How odd then that our social institutions disregard, even countermand, these fundamental human commitments.

To take an example, our legal system is of the “adversarial” sort, where we hire lawyers (attack dogs, really) to defend our interests. In the courtroom, truth is ever contested. Evidence is selected — and deselected. As litigants, our only ambition is to be judged in a favorable light. We are there to win.

Is our political system much different? Electoral politics, as a recent President put it, is no “game of bean-bag.” Most of us have come to accept the prospect that politicians are going to disrespect one another. Elections are occasions for outrageous claims, idle boasts, and vile assaults. Mud is thrown. Some of it sticks. Once elected, our side must prosecute its own perspective. Cooperating with the enemy, even listening to them seriously, is forbidden.

Our education system similarly prizes individualism. All of us are there to get our own degrees and move forward with our own lives. Grades are an individual affair; papers and tests must express that. Group study, tutoring, and the like are accepted; so are joint presentations. But at the most important times, it is the individual’s skills and knowledge — both presumably private affairs — that is measured.

Our great showcases for this perspective — spectator sports — reaffirm these values. Partisanship is all. Each side is expected to try their hardest to win; anything less is condemned. Winners are celebrated; losers, forgotten and occasionally, vilified. There may be rituals of mutual respect and consolation — handshakes between competitors, and the like. But these are usually before and after games. In the real moments, one is to compete hard. Glory goes to the “star,” and by extension, to the star’s team. And these values are maximized in sport’s “big-time” versions.

Most important of all are the means by which people support their families and, colloquially, “earn” their living. Our economic system encourages people to find their own place in the world, to strike what terms (of work and reward) they may, and to accept the prospect of losing that placement and seeking another. Most of us want “promotions” in position and pay. We take satisfaction is what we have achieved, particularly if we can look down on others who have done less well than we have. Regardless of our standing, we are taught to look out for ourselves, to know that others would gladly accept whatever position we hold.

Such are the encouragements — the ethic — that most of us accept as normal in this society. We are told, institutionally, to look out for ourselves, to guard carefully what we have gained. Property, in all its versions, should be protected. And we should always keep one eye open for better prospects. “Risk and reward,” as saying has it.

Of course, most of us are wiser than our institutional frameworks. We know that effective work-relations are much more than exercises in self-promotion and seat-stealing. Jobs are places where people are mentored in life-skills, where they experience colleagueship and friendship. Teamwork and collective satisfaction are valued. Our schools may be competitive in their ranking procedures, but they also promote lifelong bonds between their members. As much as we are encouraged to find personal salvation by our churches, we also believe it our duty to respect and assist other people, in and out of those congregations. Even our sporting contests do not reach the levels of hostility encouraged by coaches and broadcasters. Most athletes respect one another. Friendships, heretically, cross team-lines.

The world works as well as it does because people like and respect one another. They treasure family and friendship, and not just for selfish reasons. They admire mentors who have supported their life-journeys. They can even be brought to tears by the misfortunes of those they do not know.

Few of us disavow these connections. We understand ourselves, as people have throughout history, to be members of groups, small and large. Their welfare is not to be separated from our own.

All credit to this human capacity for interpersonal respect. But it is striking that at the institutional — and legal-official — level, this generosity is pushed aside. And this is particularly the case at the highest political and economic levels, the regions where power and status matter most.

In the big-leagues of politics, there is little commiseration or compromise. Those who cross party lines to vote with the enemy are seen as turncoats. Their punishment is to be “primaried” by those more orthodox. Their funders turn to more dependable investments. Gone are the days when Congress members lounged amiably in Washington, building ties and crafting deals. Now the special interests have their people in place. Representatives know that a few false steps will have them on the outside. Their principal task, consuming much of their time, is getting themselves re-elected. Newcomers, with little knowledge — or desire for knowledge — of government and its traditions — have their say.

Outside funding is also key to high-level economics. Corporations, now at global-scale, dominate. Multitudes of shareholders invest in their ventures. Most of these investors know little about the companies they support. What they do know — and care — about is their rate of return. When the stock market goes up, ordinary people make money. And then the reverse occurs.

At one level, who can blame any of us for our interest in financial advancement? A half century ago, unionized and government workers looked forward to “defined-benefit” pensions, with health provisions as well. Some of these programs remain, but most people are asked to manage their own affairs with individual retirement accounts. Wealthier people have assistants to manage their resources well. The great majority of the population have too little to secure their future. Many have nothing at all, except Social Security and basic forms of government assistance.

Those with investments (sometimes, the bulk of their life-savings) have consternation more common to the casino or race track than the business firm. Gamblers, at least those less skilled, convince themselves that their fortunes will rise. Hope substitutes for intelligence. Losses are to be expected. These, it is also presumed with be “corrected” in time. The “smart money” moves in certain directions, aided by insider-knowledge and the laws of probability. Life is about betting shrewdly — and knowing when to get out. Still one must resist timidity, for great successes come from great risks.

Quaintly, investment profits were once deemed “unearned” income and taxed more harshly than ordinary labor. Nowadays, non-protected investment profits (if held for a year) are taxed at lower rates. And venture-capitalists, the most daring of investors, have a certain shark-like appeal. Although we enjoy denouncing the rich, most of us, I suspect, envy their possibilities — the fancy houses by the sea, sumptuous food, exotic vacations, boats and cars. A few, like canaries going too far into coal mines, suffer undignified ends. Those subtler and more restrained own sports teams, become benefactors, make media appearances, and run for office.

It is often said that the Stock Market, that great engine of capitalist aspiration, runs on two emotions, greed and fear. Perhaps that description is inapposite, as much investment trading is managed now by soulless computers. But somewhere behind the computers — and the investment companies that attend them — stand millions of individuals, who know only that they are going up or down.

Should the desire to have more than we currently have be called “greed.” Most of us would say “no,” at least when there is some work involved. And modest levels of increase are surely acceptable, if only to “keep up” with inflation, and the Joneses. But what about immense gains — advances for which our work and knowledge do not qualify us? Is there something wrong with desiring the prize lottery ticket, the long-shot race winner, or the little stock that moves to greatness? Earned or not, isn’t this the American dream?

During Europe’s Middle Ages, excessive appetite for material gain was disapproved. Greed was said to be one of the seven deadly sins — along with lust, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. All of these appetites connote a person who wants more for himself than Heaven allows. For its part, greed luxuriates in materiality. Spiritual and social commitments are shoved aside.

The Renaissance represented a turning point in such views. Idolized now was the grandee who expanded his secular domain. Personality, at least in those considered prominent, was exalted. And that noble spirit was imitated by the rising businesses classes with their taste for fine houses, clothing, food, manners, and family portraits on the wall. It is this energetic bourgeois spirit that the character Gordon Gekko invokes in his “Greed is Good” speech in the movie Wall Street. Greed, by that account, “works, clarifies, cuts through, and captures.” Not just a quest for money, it embraces love, knowledge, and life. As such, it is to be equated with the “upward surge of mankind.”

A fiery speech. But like all ambitions — and the other deadly sins — greed must be bounded. Other people’s welfare must be taken into consideration. And other values must be attended. Wall Street’s protagonist, the young Bud Fox, learned painfully the lesson of selling one’s soul to a materialist devil. Goethe’s Faust, insatiable for knowledge, learned much the same thing two hundred years before.

Greed is to be noted well, because — and shark-like — it never rests. To be sure, there is some satisfaction in regarding what one has and, importantly, what others do not. A miser enjoys his pile. But greed lives less in the present than in the future. Greed is a quest, an endless desire for more.

Freudian psychology, at least in its early stages, was built on the premise that people wish to rid themselves of largely unpleasant nervous excitation. People want pleasurable release, even catharsis. But that is only partly correct. There is also the joy, the rush of desiring. Greedy people – all of us when we enter such moments – feel their fortunes about to rise. They know that the stock they recently bought is rising and, more than that, is about to “take off.” They watch its progress on their computers and phones. Their fascination mixes with self-congratulation. May this upward ascent never end!

I leave it to readers to decide if speculation – with interest only in profit and not the company – is a firm basis for an economic system. Modern capitalism lives on an expanding bubble of optimism – shared belief that business – and workers – can move forward with confidence. It is perhaps in all our interests to sustain that buoyant spirit.

Of course, the opposite occurs frequently enough. What goes up, inevitably comes down. Companies crash and burn. The broader stock indexes plummet. Now the news is watched for different reasons. When will the Fall - not unlike the Biblical account of Eden’s residents who wanted more they should – end? Where is the Bottom?

Most investors know Fear well enough. Suddenly, or so it seems to those of us less knowledgeable, there is a crisis of public confidence. The smart money has decided to get out. Long ago – days or perhaps only micro-seconds – their computers entered the sell orders. The rest of us watch dismayed. To be honest, we did not really understand the rise of our favored investment. We are just as stupefied by its collapse.

What we do comprehend is the collapse of our modest fortunes, whether we deserved those fortunes or not. Should we sell now for a pittance, or wait – years perhaps – for the ship to right itself?

Fear – sometimes full-blown panic – centers on a perceived threat, a comprehension that things can get much worse than they are now. In that sense it lives, as greed does, on the moving edge of the present. Both involve visions - of surfeit and of scarcity. And both draw energy from the belief that the world is not entirely under our control.

For such reasons, financial advisors support their clients with “hand-holding” during the down times. Prospects will get better. We must stay the course. As FDR put it, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

That idea – of Fortune rising and falling – is key. We like to believe that we control our destiny, but we know at other levels that we do not. That is why some of us like to “tempt fate” through high-risk sports, gambling, drug use, sexual escapades, and speculation of every sort. It is thrilling to risk much, perhaps everything. When we emerge unscathed, we pat ourselves on the back for our steely resolve and daring-do. We’ve gotten away with something others would not try. More than that, we triumphed over our own hesitations. We recognized the dangers, confronted, and overcame them.

But we also realize that we were not alone in our undertaking, Somehow, we felt the touch of fate, if only the clinking of material probability. We were favored, at least for those brief moments. We put our hand in the fire and were not burned.

So it is that people commit themselves to “getting in” and “getting out.”

A competitive society juices its residents with dramatizations of spectacular advance. We adore our sports champions, TV stars, and tycoons. We want to know that they have risen from ordinary beginnings. All credit to them.

Fascinated or not, the rest of us need to remember that the better portions of life are bounded. Dramatic increases in wealth, status, knowledge, and power are fun to think about. But preoccupation with endless, unmerited acquisition – or greed – is wrong. Its complement – fear, even panic – is a reminder.

Be clear that strictly private benefit is not life’s best ambition. The best forms of comfort come from the support of others and not from self-maneuvering.