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God, Greed and Politics - Part 1: Greed

Exerpted from my book A Better Way


Advocates of capitalism are very apt to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty, which are embodied in one maxim: The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate.

Bertrand Russell

Next is greed. Some call it consumerism, some call it capitalism. By whatever name, it is one of the least appealing aspects of the United States. It is what gives the United States a less than stellar reputation in the rest of the world. It is why I was reluctant to bring my children up here. I have to tell you that the inequities and frequently reprehensible money-making practices in this country are making communism seem very attractive. I don’t mean Marxism or Maoism, or even the hippy communes of the sixties. But life based in and on communities is increasingly appealing.

I was shocked to read a few years back that the basic principle of the Harvard Business School is that the only thing that matters in business is profit. What an utterly appalling idea. But how widely it has been adopted! Ethics, concern for the worker or the environment, fairness, equality be damned. All that counts is the bottom line.

I’d like to know where the other entrenched business principle comes from, namely that bigger is better, comes from. (I think it was Adam Smith).

These two ideas have turned the United States into something that is far from a democracy, if by democracy one means majority rule. Dubya was not elected by a majority. That is a fact, but not one that I can easily tie to my current theme of greed. I can’t actually point to any one special interest group that bought his election. That is due to my ignorance, not to the fact that it didn’t happen.

This country is no longer a democracy. It is not so much an oligarchy (although the 1% certainly are in control) as it is a corporatocracy, to coin a phrase. Corporations buy politicians who will then enact the legislation that serves their interests.

Republicans rail about government overreach and how smaller government is the only way to move the country forward. This is one area where I actually agree with them as the rules and regulations we are subjected to are unnecessary at best and oppressive at worst (see Regulations). However, the cynical among us tend to agree with this idea put out by the proponents of virtuous cycle economics: “Small Government” is Conservative code talk for Corporate dominance. Boardrooms don’t have to listen to a thing you say. They will eradicate every law on the books except those that protect and increase their wealth and profit.”

And… The idea that government is essential to the function of complex societies should be immediately evident to any thinking person. It is similarly clear that letting money-seeking transnational corporations rule as best suits their financial interests has disastrous societal consequences.

Entirely missing from the debate is the extent to which it is the growth of corporate size and influence that creates the need for big government to limit corporate excesses, clean up their messes, subsidize their operations, and field the military and police forces required to protect their global and domestic properties. The subsidies include welfare for underpaid employees, unemployment for those whose jobs they outsource abroad or displace with robots and migrant workers, and medical insurance for those they fail to insure.

Without the burden that monopolistic and predatory corporations place on society, government, particularly national government, could be dramatically downsized and public debt largely eliminated.

An abstract debate over the size of government is a pointless distraction—as those who promote it are likely aware. We should instead ask, “Does our federal government represent the interests of the United States and its people and is its size appropriate to that task?” Tragically, the answer for the United State is no.

Although the American people pay the bills, it is a government of, by, and for the United Corporations of Planet Earth and their needs, not a government designed to meet the needs of our people. We could do nicely with a far smaller federal government, if we limited the size of corporations and structured their ownership to assure that they are accountable to the people of the communities in which they do business.

How I wish that I had the knowledge and the skill to have written the above words! They were actually written by David Korten, co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine, and author of When Corporations Rule the World, now out in its 20th anniversary edition.

What a pity we didn’t listen to him two decades ago.

I suppose one can’t actually eliminate the stock exchange, although I wish one could. It is irrelevant to the vast majority of Americans who do not have any disposable income to invest, while small investors are at the mercy of speculators who manipulate the market for their own gain. The price of stocks can so easily be affected by positive or negative reports (which may or may not bear any resemblance to the true situation) that the real value of a company is often obscured.

So is the Stock Exchange actually a good idea? It has become one giant casino, a word carefully chosen to represent not only a gambling den where the odds strongly favour the house, but also the less well-known Italian meanings: casinò = the gambling place; che casino = what a mess, guadagnare un casino = to earn a helluva lot of money and casino = a brothel. So whores earning too much money and making a mess, just about sums it up.

The concept of the stock exchange was one of those which seemed like a good idea at the time. But it has deteriorated to the point where it has allowed gamblers (sometimes called hedge fund managers or junk bond traders or derivatives managers) to make a huge amounts of money. It is no longer the mechanism to invest in promising or successful businesses. Rather it has become a market for speculators who don't make anything and don't build anything. They mess with other people’s money to make themselves rich. And they are aided and abetted in this legal but largely unethical scheme by the government which gives tax breaks for gambling debts and other financial losses, while capping the tax on capital gains at a mere 15%.

Maybe one way to curb greed is to tax all unearned income (including inheritances and stock options) at, say, 80%, as has happened in the past. A small per transaction tax on stock trades wouldn’t hurt either.

In December 2011, I was bored. As something to do, I signed up with This business came out of Australia and was intended to outsource work to cheaper countries. The work covers many fields from computer programming to writing academic papers (which I refuse to do). Over the next three years I wrote thousands and thousands of words on subjects ranging from Keurig coffee makers (my first) to free marijuana seeds to cufflinks. The first part of one of these articles titled How much is enough for your emergency fund? is relevant here:

According to the title character in Ben Jonson’s 1606 play, Volpone, there is never enough. He was, of course, talking about overall wealth and not the contents of your emergency fund. His method of accumulating wealth was to pretend that he was dying, drop hints about an heir and gratefully accept expensive gifts from greedy friends and relatives currying favor in order to become that heir.

Stockholders are the modern-day equivalent of Volpone’s heir. Corporations

And there is never enough.

Why is it not possible for the founder of a company to say to himself (or possibly herself), we are doing pretty well. I can pay all my employees a good salary. I am living well; life is good. Why is it necessary to go public and acquire stockholders to whom you are then beholden?

There is no shortage of corporations whose greed and reckless disregard for the effect they are having on the economy, the environment and political stablility is bordering on criminal. I am not among the 58% of Americans who believe in the Devil, but there is one corporation that is truly evil. One which we’ll call They Who Must Not Be Named, because otherwise they are likely to sue.

This corporation’s development and marketing of genetically engineered seed and bovine growth hormone, as well as its aggressive litigation, political lobbying practices, seed commercialization practices and "strong-arming" of the seed industry have made the company controversial around the world and a primary target of environmental activists. As a result of its business strategies and licensing agreements, the company came under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department in 2009. (Thank you Wikipedia for a very well-documented entry).

This company is nasty. It is the epitome of the “we’re here to make money and damn the consequences” mentality that is destroying the fabric of American life. They have chuckled gleefully (on tape) over their price-fixing policies and feel that they “should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food (because their )interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is FDA's job.” The FDA can cite and chastise, but when you have the deep pockets and huge legal department that Mon…… (oops) has, you fight every case and if necessary pay some pathetic little fine and move on.

Other nasty corporations are (many) banks. We – stupid us – lend our money to banking institutions so that they can play the markets and make lots more money. I don’t have a huge problem with that as a deal, but in return I would expect a few basic services, such as giving me access to my money when I need it. I have a problem with a bank that cannot move my money somewhere else when I ask it to, that speeds up my withdrawals and slows down my deposits so that it can charge me hefty NSF fees on multiple withdrawals because they process the largest check first.

Stories of bank insanities are legion and they are all about giving back to the depositor the least possible amount of his or her money. None of this nickel and diming is necessary, as long as the banking institution is content with good profits instead of usurious ones. We have a flourishing (the second largest building in town) Credit Union, which offers excellent customer support and every service that a customer could possibly wish for (but even they have difficulty moving my money to foreign parts because of more and more onerous “security” regulations.)

And I won’t even touch on insurance companies because the very thought sends my blood pressure soaring and I almost start to froth at the mouth. (I froth a bit in the chapter “Liability”)

#Occupy Wall Street is underlining the evils of corporate greed very well and the movement raises many questions that need to be considered carefully:

  • What will the workforce of 2020 look like, where are the jobs

  • Is capitalism the only way to go

  • Is socialism really that evil (WWJS)

  • Is the Stock Exchange a good thing for the country

  • Should banks be more regulated

  • Are banks necessary

  • Should stock options be abolished

  • Should stock transactions be taxed

  • Is bigger better

  • Is there an alternative to a wealth tax

  • Is it right that I have and you don’t

  • Isn’t ethical more important than legal

  • What about the common good

I don’t know the answers to the questions raised by Occupy, but I would sure like to see people talking about them. I came across this comment about the Occupy movement from, naturally, someone hiding behind a user name: "Them libtards at the Occupy protest are going to get stomped by the riot squad because they're too smelly and weird for ordinary people to support them. Sad really; they're right about pretty much everything but they have really shitty PR." More about libtards later. Good point about the PR, though. It raises the question of how to get people talking in a thoughtful, inquiring, respectful manner and not the odious “discussions” one gets from so-called pundits on TV which are little more than shouting matches and have no hope of ever changing the other person’s mind, or the even more odious discussions that follow online articles.

“Why” is a question that is not asked nearly enough. Why do you support this candidate? Years ago when I was tutoring in the Migrant Education Program, a 10-year girl said out of the blue, “George Bush is so cool, I wish he could be President for ever”! What had she heard from her parents? How I would have liked to ask them just what made him “cool”. The follow-up question is, of course, how do you know? I’m sorry, but I saw it on Fox News is not an acceptable answer. Nor is the Internet.

I do not trust any source where there is money involved. To quote Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" That idea infiltrates so many areas. I am not anti-science, I suppose, but “The science is only as good as the integrity of the patrons” to quote sustainable farming’s poster boy, Joel Salatin. I do not trust “scientific” studies which support a product when the study was commissioned by the manufacturer.

One evening David accused me of being a Luddite. “I am not,” I defended myself hotly, then sneaked off to look up what he meant. Of course, he was right. Was he ever wrong?

The day my MacBook refused to take a charge and was essentially dead, I had a full blown panic attack – hyperventilating, unable to stay still, invoking the deity I don’t believe in. It was bad.

We are so dependent on technology that it is hard to remember a time when we were not hooked up, tuned in, wired, wi-fi’d, GPS’d, online, on a cell phone, or talking to a machine. Not that all technology is bad. Until something goes wrong. I am absolutely dependent on my computer. The meltdown happened on a Friday afternoon, the day before I was leaving for Europe so I would not be able to get to an Apple store until Monday. I was fully expecting to have to leave my machine there for possibly lengthy repairs. Fortunately I had printed out the text of a book I had just finished translating, so I could spend my travel time proofreading the old fashioned way with pencil and paper.

You may be asking what all this has to do with greed. Machines are more efficient than people, and you don’t have to pay them. The original Luddites were absolutely right: machines steal jobs. Machines replace skilled workers with much less skilled machine operators. And fewer workers, period. It is quite true that consumers benefit because the machine made products tend to be cheaper. At the same time it is very good for the proprietor – fewer paychecks, lower paychecks, increased productivity and money in the bank.

I much prefer the attitude at St. Pauly Textile in Farmington, New York. I toured their facility with a group from NYSAR3, the New York State Association for Reduction, Reuse and Recycling. St. Pauly collects used clothing and shoes all over the state, sorts them, bales them and ships them to non-profit organizations which distribute them to the needy here and abroad. One of our group, observing the five or six workers feeding a single baler asked our guide why they didn’t get another baler. To his very great credit he said, in effect, I could but that would put half the team out of work. I can’t do that to my friends and neighbors. They need the jobs and our community needs them to be working.

His answer gave me goosebumps. I have mentioned elsewhere that eighty people hold the same amount of wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people. I have mentioned Volpone earlier, but it is worth repeating in a greater detail.

Way back in my youth I saw a movie called The Honey Pot with Rex Harrison in the lead role as a millionaire (it’s on old movie!!!) based on the title character in Volpone,, Ben Jonson’s early 17th Century play described as a “a merciless satire of greed and lust”. I think that the play needs to be revived and widely performed, but perhaps it is enough to quote the pivotal line from the film. Cecil Fox – volpone being translated, of course, as a large, or sly fox – is asked, when will you have enough money. His quite chilling, and immensely prescient answer is THERE IS NEVER ENOUGH.

I am not against entrepreneurship:

There is already a huge groundswell rising from the bottom up against income inequality, but for that to have much effect, it is going to need a revolution, not just a few Occupy’s. Given my still tenuous immigration status I should probably not be espousing revolution as I am quite likely to be thrown out of the country for sedition.

So please, help me find a way to bring about change and stay in my increasingly expensive green house here in Corning. (that’s another story - see Regulations)

I tend to see things very much in black and white and I think that we should just abolish capitalism altogether. Bye, bye Stock Exchange, bye, bye stock options, bye, bye hedge funds, bye, bye eight-figure executive compensation, etc, etc, etc.

Perhaps David Korten’s idea of limiting the size of corporations is a more practical solution. Perhaps corporations could regulate themselves without the need for the masses to attack them with pitchforks a la the French Revolution as Nick Hanauer suggested in a provocative TED talk, viewed so far by 1.1 million people. But I doubt it.

If more people thought the way that the wonderful people at St Pauly Textile do, the world would be a much, much better place.

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