Greed is good?

In the 1987 movie Wall Street, the fictional character Gordon Gekko, a “corporate psychopath”, said, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

Jul 26, 2019

By Anil Netto
In the 1987 movie Wall Street, the fictional character Gordon Gekko, a “corporate psychopath”, said, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

“Greed is right, greed works,” added Gekko. “Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
That embodied the gung-ho spirit of Wall Street at the time, finally leading to the sub-prime loans crash that rocked the financial markets in 2008.

Greed. One of the seven deadly sins in traditional Catholic teaching. Greed for power, position, wealth and profits. It continues to drive the markets of today.

It is the polar opposite of striving for the common good, which is much different from gross domestic product (the total of all goods and services produced in a country).

The common good is not the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. “Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains ‘common’, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it, increase it and safeguard its effectiveness, with regard also to the future.

“Just as the moral actions of an individual are accomplished in doing what is good, so too the actions of a society attain their full stature when they bring about the common good. The common good, in fact, can be understood as the social and community dimension of the moral good” (Social Doctrine of the Church, 164).

A society that wishes to remain at the service of the human being at every level is “a society that has the common good — the good of all people and of the whole person — as its primary goal. The human person cannot find fulfilment in himself, that is, apart from the fact that he exists ‘with’ others and ‘for’ others” (Social Doctrine, 165).

So we have to work together with others, for others. This provides a community dimension to the individual quest for moral good. Put another way, the quest for social justice is the community dimension of the call to the individual to love and be the salt of the earth.

Unfortunately, the market, if unrestrained, can hurt the common good. This is why the state has to intervene to keep it in check — and it did so in the immediate decades after World War Two especially through a progressive taxation system.

A progressive taxation system raised funding for the provision of public healthcare, public education and housing for the masses.

But from the 1980s, neoliberalism reared its head: a revival of the 19th Century laissez-faire economic liberalism or full-blown free market capitalism. In its wake came privatisation, market deregulation, “free trade”, a shift towards a regressive taxation system (tax cuts for the wealthy) accompanied by social spending cuts on education, healthcare and social welfare (“austerity”).

This same “free market” economy is driven by the desire to increase market share and maximise profits relentlessly so that shareholders can be rewarded with higher dividend payouts. To maximise profits and shareholders’ dividends, costs incurred often have to be slashed.

So raw materials have to be purchased at the cheapest prices and quality is sometimes compromised. Workers find their wages suppressed. Environmental safeguards are tossed out of the window.

The free market uses prices to value goods and services and provide an equilibrium to balance demand and supply. So the same market is often unable to handle aspects of our life to which it is impossible to attach a price eg the ecosystem, biodiversity, clean and fresh air, the right to forests and parks, the dignity of workers, the rights of migrants.

Thus, we are unable to see the costs to society and the ecology arising from low wages, greenhouse gas emissions, environmental pollution, the clearing of forests and the loss of biodiversity.

Over time, these costs take an enormous toll on society — climate change, wealth inequality, fuelling a sense of deprivation and instability, loss of fisheries and food security.

It is only when lives are lost or harmed by say, poisoned water or toxic fumes, that we sit up and take notice. But we shouldn’t be too surprised: it is the logical conclusion of valuing the economy by GDP growth while neglecting the harm caused to even more precious assets like fresh air, clean rivers, unspoilt forests.

This is the privatisation of profits and the socialisation of costs/losses ie most of the profits go to a few while the socioeconomic and environmental costs of “development” (eg the pollution of our air, rivers and seas) are unfortunately borne by society as a whole.

The underlying tension we face today is caused by hidden countervailing forces at work.

On the one hand, the “greed is good” mantra drives competition, fuels materialism and glorifies self-centredness - while leaving behind a trail of damage to the fabric of society and to the ecology.

On the other, a spirituality is blossoming that seeks cooperation in society to unselfishly work for the common good while ever mindful of caring for the ecology.

In the kingdom of God, Jesus leaves us in no doubt that we cannot serve two masters — God and money.

Sure, we all need to ask God for our daily bread, for which we need money to buy.

But once our basic needs are satisfied, ever-more “wants” start creeping in. We then find ourselves hooked on accumulating more money so we can acquire more than what we need.

It is difficult to acquire enormous wealth without somehow compromising on ethical principles and the common good – such as paying fair and decent wages, and caring for the ecology.

In the process, we may wittingly or unconsciously, exploit other human beings and the ecosystem. We may also neglect our own role in serving the common good and working for a new kingdom.

This may explain why the rich man walked away sadly.

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