Thursday, December 16, 2010

Greed: The word they dare not speak

As the House takes up the debate about extending tax cuts for the very rich, our elected representatives shouldn’t shy away from the word “greed.” It is central to the debate.

And yet as they stand to speak, they are unlikely to ever use the word. To do so, they may conclude, may be seen as unseemly moralizing. Moreover, talk of greed intrudes on individual rights, the holy of holies.

Further, for elected politicians to raise the question of greed might seem hypocritical. The greedy are the very people who elected them to public office. Massive political donations come from the very wealthy and their political arms. Secret political contributions ensure that political discourse never addresses the question of greed.

Greed is off the table.

It shouldn’t be.

We must free the word “greed” of its moral connotations and look it square in the face as a pathology. Only then can we examine what it is and does. Try treating the word as you would “cancer” or, better yet, “drug addiction.”

Greed, shorn of questions about its morality, is clearly the driver of the vast inequities in our society. It is what compels the susceptible to accumulate vast sums of money they clearly desperately want but, just as clearly, don’t need. And all this is happening at a time when the wealthy live in a society of dire, real needs that their hoarded money could address.

I won’t review the statistics on inequality here. They are well known and documented. Just search “inequality” on your computer. You will not come up wanting.

This is not about numbers. It is about resources wasted on a all-consuming, destructive addiction.

Sure, this can be seen as a moral issue, but arguing about morality narrows the debate to individual moral choices. “Look, if that guy wants to pay himself $15 million a year, that’s his right.” “She deserves that kind of reward.” “It’s a question of what the market will bear.” “Greed is in the eye of the beholder.”

You aren’t going to shame the greedy to change their behavior any more than you are going to shame an addict out of his or her addiction.

To couch the debate in appeals to individual rights misses the point: Greed is a disease that infects and destroys the entire society.

The debate the House of Representatives should have over extending or ending the tax cuts for the wealthy must expose greed as bad for America. It’s a drug. It’s like tobacco or alcohol. It destroys not just the person afflicted with the addiction (in this case some obvious symptoms are obsession, denial, secrecy, need for more, and elitist isolation). Greed damages through “second-hand smoke” those who are nearby. The children of the wealthy become addicted to greed too. With rare exceptions, they display the same symptoms.

The damage caused by greed spreads to the society as a whole. We pay the costs of someone else’s greed, just as our health insurance rates go up to pay for the disproportionate health costs associated with smoking or other addictions.

How so? We live in a society whose health is dependent on rational, open civil discourse. Without it, democracy dies. If we elect our leaders (who set our priorities and create our laws) based on expensive, evocative, emotional, irrational appeals, the foundations of democracy wanes and we are left with a government ruled by those who control and manipulate mass communication.

That control belongs to the very rich, and their goal is to support and protect their habit of greed.

Moreover, the money spent to support their habits and hoarding, is money not spent on the very real problems of our society. Greed’s damage spreads to the larger society. For millions in true need, it slams shut the doors to health, education and opportunity. For a growing number, it denies them food and shelter.

Of course in a democracy we turn to our elected representatives to address those problems, but, as we’ve seen, those representatives aren’t answering to us.

Most elected representatives have been put in office by the greedy, for the greedy.

(A reminder: When I use the word “greedy,” I’m not making a moral judgment. I’m describing a pathology.)

And so our mounting social problems go unaddressed, and society enters a kind of death spiral as the rich get richer and everyone else gets poorer. The failure to see greed as the source of our problem is part of the same self-destructive, avoidance behavior that began with those individuals originally addicted to greed.

This is the state of our nation as the House debate begins. Greed should be front and center in the debate. The issue is ultimately about the social and political health of America.

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Anonymous Jay T. said...


Thanks for your plain spoken analysis.

I wonder if we could come to a solution any faster if we allowed the other parties in the greed pathologies to confess and work toward a solution. My envy is a quality I need to shed before I can claim freedom from the greed disease. The longing for and coveting of what wealth we can find is another side of that coin that afflicts many of us.

Calling out those pathologies can keep us clear from invoking the envy and victimization that are evidenced by the appeals against "class warfare."

Envy and longing bring us to support the habits and hoarding of others--since we hope to be in their position someday......soon, maybe. Plus, I tend to luxuriate, even wallow, in what opulence I can find.

But maybe confession and expiation aren't the effective processes to advocate for. They entail a lot of labeling of our behavior, which verges on labeling other people. That invites opposition from anyone who is denying the illness--which is most of us.

Is there a way out of a sickness of the heart that doesn't require those steps? (Honest question. Not a rhetorical wondering.)

Robert Reich is pointing out that "As income and wealth have risen to the top, so has political power. Money is being used to bribe politicians and fill the airwaves with misleading ads..." Very plain spoken, too. And less personal and confessional.

So are his ideas for ways out of the mess, including, "another part of the solution is to limit the impact of big money on politics. This requires, for example, publically-financed campaigns, disclosure of all sources of political spending, and resurrection of the fairness doctrine for broadcasters."

More from him at

So I don't know. An appeal to contrition doesn't seem to work in the political arena. Jimmy Carter couldn't make it work. Perhaps it can fly in the less centralized spheres of the broader society that journalists such as yourself reach to with blogs, TV commentary and books.

7:32 AM  

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