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Online News Day or Knight - Official news site of North Penn High School - 1340 Valley Forge Rd. Lansdale, PA

The Knight Crier

Online News Day or Knight - Official news site of North Penn High School - 1340 Valley Forge Rd. Lansdale, PA

The Knight Crier

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Special Education aid Mrs. Susan Bones announces retirement
This Week’s Brumbaugh Challenge: What to do After Retirement?

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Operation Retirement beginning soon for Mrs. Giermann

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View All

In Defense of Greed

There is a movement that has received a lot of attention lately that is growing both in size and influence.  It’s called the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Although they also criticize government for being a little too cozy with big business, the root of their outrage is corporate greed.  Greed is a term that is usually used in the negative.  But there is a lot to be thankful for with regard to greed.  Unfortunately, much of how our society benefits from greed goes unnoticed and is usually taken for granted.  Think of this analogy.  When you throw a rock into a pond, ripples extend outward in all directions.  An act of greed works the same way.  But only focusing attention on the negative side of greed is like trying to say that the ripples on the pond only go in one direction.  Just because the positive aspects of greed are not as easily noticed (or completely ignored) doesn’t mean those ripples do not exist.  The social sciences of sociology and economics spend a large portion of their time studying the effects of behavior and policies, both seen and unseen, on society and the citizens within.

One of my favorite authors is economist and syndicated columnist Walter Williams.  I was listening to an interview with him the other day and the concept of greed came up.  He gave some interesting insights.  He first asked the question “Which human motivator gets more things done in our society, love or greed?”  He then offered a story about steak and potato lovers.  It went something like this.

Cattle ranchers in Oklahoma and potato growers in Idaho routinely wake up at 3:00am on very cold mornings to do very difficult, back breaking work.  Their labor is the beginning of a long chain of events that literally involves hundreds of people, most of whom do not even know each other.  This chain of events eventually culminates in a New York City couple eating a great steak and potato meal cooked to order at their favorite restaurant. 

Why do the cattle ranchers, potato growers, and everyone else along the chain of production continue to do the daily grind of their jobs?  It’s extremely difficult work that most people avoid like the plague.  So why do they do it?  Is it for the “love” of New Yorkers?  If you asked the ranchers of Oklahoma and the growers in Idaho that question, chances are good that the word “love” would not be used in their answers.  That’s not a knock against New Yorkers.  It would apply if the couple was in Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and yes, even Lansdale.  The reality is, it’s tough to use the word “love” with people you don’t know.  So, what is the answer then?  Why does everyone do the hard labor of producing that meal?  The answer is greed.   Everyone on that chain acts in their own self-interest because each one wants to make a living.  If they stopped doing the work or even slacked off just a little, the money they made doing that work will start to go to someone else. 

And that brings us to the other side of greed.  If you ask someone what greed is, they probably will say something like “the obsession with making money.”  That is true but it is only half the definition.  Greed is a combination of the desire to make more money and the fear of losing money.  Capitalism is often described as running on a “profit system.” It is not.  It is run by a “profit and loss system.” The “and loss” part is just as important.  It’s like a coin. There is no such thing as a one sided coin.  Just because you only look at one side of the coin does not mean the other side is not there.

This “fear of losing money” side of the coin of greed has had an enormous positive impact on the history of our country.  Did you know that greed played a huge role in the success of the Civil Rights Movement?   I am confident you will never read that in a history book.  It’s true nonetheless. 

Historians still disagree as to why Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to play baseball.  Some say he did it on moral grounds and some say it was just an attempt to make more money.  Why he did it is not what matters.  What matters is why every other team eventually followed suit and began to sign black players.  Did they all just wake up one day and realize that their racist attitudes and policies were morally wrong and in need of changing?  Did they all of a sudden start to “love” African-American baseball players?  Unfortunately, no.  They knew that if they did not start to sign black players for their teams, the Brooklyn Dodgers would have signed all the top black players, probably would have won many World Series titles in a row, and would have made a killing in profits from the country’s African-American population in ticket sales and merchandise.  The other owners’ fear of losing money made them realize that their racist policies would cost them too much to continue.  They caved and began signing black players.  The same is true with ending segregation policies on southern buses as well as at department store lunch counters.  Owners of those businesses did not change their racist attitudes.  They realized that the financial costs of discrimination were now too high.  If the Civil Rights Movement relied on “love” to fix the South, they would have had to wait a lot longer for changes to be made. 

Corporate greed sparked an end to segregation in the South.  Who would have thought?

Greed can be an enormously powerful incentive for good in society. American prosperity and our high standard of living that comes from it originates from greed.  The fact that it is not talked about much or even ignored does not mean the positive side of it doesn’t exist. 

So, the next time you bite into a juicy steak at your favorite restaurant, think about greed … and be more thankful for it.

 

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  • M

    Mr. McCrearyNov 7, 2011 at 6:04 am

    Wow, somebody read my column! Thanks TJ and thanks for taking the time to comment! Good stuff! “In defense of enlightened self interest” just doesn’t have the same kick to it. Mr. Manero needs to give you a column!

    Reply
  • T

    T.J. GillespieNov 5, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    Mr. McCreary, what you are calling greed is actually self-interest, but your conflation of these two words gets at the heart of one of the problems in today’s society.

    Greed, by definition, is excessive. It is inordinate desire, accumulation for accumulation’s sake. It is, by its very nature, irrational whereas self-interest is the epitome of rational behavior. Self-interest is the common sense pursuit of one’s well-being, one’s property, one’s success. A healthy sense of self-interest inspires us to work our hardest, try our best, set and achieve goals, and improve our lives. You don’t have to be Aquinas or Chaucer (“Radix malorum est cupiditas”; the root of all evil is cupidity–greed) or Dante ( the fourth circle for you) to realize that greed, when unchecked by society and law, causes ill. The potato farmer and the cattle rancher are not greedy simply because they work hard and their efforts improve the lives (or at least the dining experience) of others. Their desires are rational; they are self-interested laborers producing for self-interested consumers.

    The respect of property itself is also a rational thing and one of the cornerstone beliefs of our society–even while we acknowledge that greed is bad thing. That’s one of the most basic reasons why we have government. We establish laws to put a check on other people’s avidity for our goods. We come to agree that “this is mine and that is yours and I’ll respect yours if you respect mine.” A greedy person is not ruled by this. He wants it all and is willing to do anything to get it.

    Self-interest and altruism do not have to be at odds. This is the point of Branch Rickey. His lesson to us is not that greed is good–it isn’t; greed is rapacious and destructive. For proof of this see any victim of bribery, robbery, larceny, embezzlement, theft. Or read what Bartolomé de las Casas wrote of the Antilles or of what Leopold did in the Congo or what Madoff did on Wall Street. That’s greed. No, what Rickey proves is that sometimes doing the good thing is also good business. Economics can be used to motivate people to change society for the better. What Branch Rickey did–help break the color barrier in professional baseball and all that followed it–was motivated by idealism, courage, conviction, and, yes, maybe an astute business sense, but it was not greed. Would you say that Jackie Robinson was motivated by greed? He may have, like Leo Durocher promised, made a lot of people rich, but that’s probably not why he did what he did.

    It’s not bad enough that we mistakenly tolerate greed as Gordon Gekko’s American virtue, but to suggest that we glorify it over superior qualities (charity, generosity, philanthropy, community, cooperation) seems to me to be disservice. The hard work of the cattle rancher and the farmer isn’t analogous to the actions that sparked recent outrage.

    I do thank you for your column. It certainly got me thinking about this.

    Respectfully,

    T.J. Gillespie

    Reply