Monday, May 13, 2013

Just not buying it

Tonight's Lesson In Stuff You Should Have Already Learned In Preschool: Greed is not good.

While digging through some old school stuff, I found copies of Man's Rights and The Nature of Government by Ayn Rand. (Reprinted from The Virtue of Selfishness) I hope to revisit this topic after I've actually read them, but the impression I have right now of Ayn Rand is that she wasn't a particularly good role model.

It never ceases to amaze me how great people are at coming to a conclusion first and a justification later. Statistically, there aren't many sociopaths in the world. So, for a normal person to willfully engage in bad behavior, they need to convince themselves that they are in fact good or at least decent people, in spite of any evidence that may present itself. For people like these, any philosophy that praises their bad behavior in some way is quickly embraced.

Again, I'm not terribly familiar with Ayn Rand's work, so for now I'm going to talk about something tangentially related, the propagation of which is just as insidious: that classic line from Gordon Gekko, "Greed is good." It's a good phrase, and a good idea, in that it relates to a core principle of capitalism. A lot of greedy people seem to take that notion to heart, especially if they haven't actually bothered to study capitalism.

For those unfamiliar with the idea of how greed could be good in a capitalist system, I'll give you the gist as I understand it. Basically, because of the nature of competition, we expect the most successful businesses to be the best at what they do. So, in theory, a greedy business owner is a good business owner, because his desire to be more successful must necessarily drive him to improve his business, providing better goods and services for less money. When businesses compete to be the best, the consumers win.

Except it doesn't work that way anymore, if it ever did to start with. Greedy people don't care about being the best, they care about getting more money. They're not going to work hard and play fair to get it. That's why we have cheap low-quality products, lousy service, misleading advertising, blowout sales, special introductory rates, long-term contracts, unsafe working conditions, hazardous materials, outsourcing, mortgage securities, investment banking, secret offshore bank accounts, tax evasion, fraud, ponzi schemes, and a host of other things that are fundamentally bad for the consumers while good for the guys making money.

This way of doing business is so systemic now that it's actually difficult for a business owner in this day and age to succeed with a "make good stuff for good prices" business model. If everybody in the Tour de France is on steroids, the guy who ran a clean race is screwed. Hell, that's not even a fair comparison, because if a professional athlete uses experimental performance-enhancing drugs, his fans aren't the ones who get heart disease.

And what about the whole "trickle down" theory? The most successful among us spend plenty of money, so surely that money is making its way down to the common folk, right? Kind of.

Money does slowly spread from rich people to the rest of the economy when they patronize businesses. After all, somebody's getting paid to cut the grass on that private golf course. However, the idea that a little spending from the rich few can somehow positively impact the grossly many poor is just bad math. The number of Americans alone living below the poverty line is around 50 million, over ten million of them being considered the "working poor." If a theoretical rich person spends even one million dollars a day on goods and services, how many people who could use that money ever see a cent of it?

The monetary system is fairly finite, inflation notwithstanding. If you take in more revenue than you spend, and stuff your savings away someplace nobody (ie. The IRS) can get to it, you gradually bleed the economy dry. And when the economy suffers, the rich don't suffer, the people that work for them do. When a company's profits start to take a hit, which do you usually hear happening: the board of directors agreeing to forego their annual bonuses this year, or a round of layoffs taking place? These are meant to be the people who steer the ship. If their leadership leads to the company taking losses, shouldn't they be the ones who pay for the consequences?

Aside from all that, the main reason I can't accept the notion of greed being good is that it simply is never honorable. I don't mean to single out the rich, either. It doesn't matter if you're a CEO giving your part-time workers crap pay and zero benefits so the company can afford a higher salary for yourself, or if you're the lowly scammer sitting in his living room stealing identities, tricking people into buying fake pharmaceuticals, and flooding my blog comment box with god damn spam.

Big or small, rich or poor, you're hurting other people for your own benefit; that's never a good thing. The only reason I'm harder on rich business owners in this post is because their high positions in the business world enable them to do the most damage to the most people.

That's all I'll say on this today. I'll read that selection from Ayn Rand and report back eventually. Maybe I'll track down more of her work if I decide I actually like it. And hell, maybe when I'm rich myself my tune will change.

Actually, no, that's highly unlikely. I'm constantly thinking about how my actions affect others, and I always think I could do more to be a better person and have a stronger positive impact on the world around me. Money would just make me better at doing those things. That's what's supposed to happen when you're successful. That's what we need. More Bill Gates, less Bernie Madoff.

Alright, thanks for reading. Working full-time has left me little time for blogging, but I'll keep at it when I can. I need an outlet for my egotistical know-it-all crap, after all. Peace and love, you crazy kids.

1 comment:

  1. This was a very good post Dan. I'm pleased you have found work too.