As the Omicron variant puts us in its cross-hairs, America is still stuck with a predatory health insurance and healthcare system that’s barely up to the task of meeting our nation’s needs. This new variant apparently emerged from South Africa, which has been unsuccessfully begging the WTO for 14 months for a “TRIPS Waiver” to allow them to manufacture Covid vaccine…which might have prevented this variant from evolving.
And it’s all because of greed.
The single most brilliant and evil thing that Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman accomplished in the last century was convincing Americans that greed was no longer one of the Seven Deadly Sins but, instead, was an “essential good” that should be both celebrated and rewarded.
As a direct consequence of our 40-year experiment with “greed is good” (aka Neoliberalism/Reaganism), America has the highest Covid death rate in the developed world, our democracy is in tatters, and armed “white power” militias are proudly terrorizing Christmas shoppers.
The United Nations documented that we have the most poverty and homeless people and, at the same time, the most billionaires in the developed world.
Greed is literally killing America and Americans, and only a return to our pre-Reagan “traditional values” that discourage or even punish greed will rescue this country.
This is not a new or radical idea.
For two thousand years in Christianity and far longer in Judaism and other, older religions greed was considered the worst of all the “deadly sins.” Jesus himself called out greed in Luke 12:15, telling his disciples, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
Before Reagan, Americans understood that greed was a fundamental evil and corrosive to society:
* It’s why we had a 91% top tax bracket to restrain the behavior of the greediest among us.
* It’s why we once enforced laws against monopoly to restrain greedy corporate behavior.
* It’s why we once prided ourselves as the nation with the largest and most successful middle class the world had ever seen instead of being, like too many other countries, oligarchies or kingdoms where all the wealth was concentrated at the top.
We also realized that people overtaken by greed are mentally ill. It’s why we viewed with pity people whose personalities were so warped by greed that we called them “hoarders” whether they were filling apartments with old newspapers or, like Howard Hughes and the Hunt brothers, filling their bank accounts with hundreds of millions of dollars as they descended into a personal psychological hell.
Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, calls greed one of only two “capital sins” because virtually all other sins derive from it. “It would seem that no other special sins beside pride and avarice [greed] should be called ‘capital’…one from which other sins arise…”
As the aging Paul wrote to his young disciple Timothy, “[T]hey that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil…” In the fifth century, Saint Augustine wrote in City of God, “Greed is not a defect in the gold that is desired, but in the man who loves it perversely…”
Reagan and Friedman (and Ayn Rand), though, believed that precisely because greed was such an electrifying and powerful driver of behavior, it could be channeled into a social good. In fact, it should be celebrated and amplified in society! If only everybody acted with maximum greed, they promised us as wealthy people supported their work, it would steer society in a wealthier but more “successful” direction.
That, of course, was a lie. Greed doesn’t feed a baby when she cries; greed doesn’t protect homes from fire or crime; greed doesn’t house the homeless or heal the ill; greed didn’t care for the injured Samaritan [foreigner] by the roadside.
Greed doesn’t bring people together: instead, it tears societies apart, which is why it’s been roundly condemned from before the time to Aristotle (who warned us that “Greed has no boundaries”) to today.
Forty years of Reagan’s neoliberal experiment has proven that unrestrained greed brings us massive tax cuts for the morbidly rich; creates widespread homelessness; sends jobs overseas; repeatedly crashes our economy and forces politicians to bail out greedy billionaire banksters; exploits workers; and is, today, poisoning the atmosphere and oceans of our planet in a way that could ultimately end human civilization if not most complex life on Earth.
In his “Farewell Address,” President Dwight Eisenhower said, “As we peer into our society’s future we, you and I and our government, must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss, also, of their political and spiritual heritage.”
“But greed drives the economy!” say the neoliberals; “without it, nobody would do anything.” As Michael Douglas’ character, Gordon Gekko, said in the movie Wall Street: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
In this they are terribly, tragically, pathologically and even spiritually wrong.
* People don’t go to work every day because they’re greedy: they do so to care for their families.
* Most entrepreneurs don’t start businesses because they’re greedy: they’re trying to build a business that can contribute to society while providing for their families.
* We don’t buy things because we’re greedy: we purchase things to meet needs or increase comfort for ourselves and our children.
Until the GOP embraced greed as a prime virtue in the 1980s, people didn’t go into politics because they were greedy: our most beloved politicians [Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Jack and Robert Kennedy, Jimmy Carter], instead, suffered financially as they gave up other opportunities for public service; most left office poorer than they entered.
Today, however, our politics have been almost entirely corrupted by greed: since five greed-loving “conservatives” on the US Supreme Court legalized political bribery by corporations and billionaires in their Citizens United decision, it’s nearly impossible for “good” politicians to pass legislation that restrains the greed of Big Pharma, Big Oil, Big Banks, Big Tech or Big Billionaires.
Every issue, from climate change to the failure of Trump’s response to Covid to the fact that the majority of American families are living hand-to-mouth, circles back around to greed.
Greed is the essential poison that religious and political thinkers have warned us about for thousands of years, yet the entire Republican Party and a small but powerful “corporate problem solver” faction within the Democratic Party continue to embrace it as a social good.
We once had shared stories and media that celebrated those who pushed back against or recovered from greed, from Dickens’ Christmas Carol to Dr. Seuss’ Grinch to Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life: to regain our moral compass we must again celebrate community, love, and selflessness.
If we are to again become a great nation, America must repudiate greed and once again teach our children that it’s a sign of mental illness and, when presented in a religious context, the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins.