Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Greed Is God

Much of this week, hell, much of this year, has been about the coming economic disaster, which appears is now arriving on Track 13.

It got me to thinking a little about the capitalist system and its built-in, inherent flaw. Hell, it's such an obvious flaw that it boggles the mind that a rational people would choose it for their economy. Even Adam Smith saw it coming and warned against it.

Laissez-faire capitalism can loosely be defined as each person acting in his own interest contributes to the benefit of society at large.

For the large part, this system works pretty well: it's simple, easy to implement, and eventually, all people can benefit from truly free markets.

The one flaw in the ointment, the thing that ultimately Smith warned us on, is, well, greed. I mean, it's right there in the first part of that equation: A person's self-interest.

Implicit in that statement, of course, is the question "Which self-interest?" After all, one can be greedy to the point that it no longer is in one's self-interest. Think about Ebenezer Scrooge.

The assumption Smith made in his time was that man would remain ultimately a polite creature, fair and impartial, and more to the point, powerless over his fellow man (except for nobility, royalty and slavers).

In other words, business would remain small and personal. Indeed, his specific warning was against business combinations that would tend to unduly influence a market.

In fact, despite Republican tendencies to the otherwise, he insisted on government regulation in markets to assure that companies would remain beholden to the market, to the customer, and to society.

What we have witnessed over the past eight years is one of the least regulated markets in world history. Even the Romans, no socialist society, had the decent sense to keep the overseers at least nominally independent of the overseen!

The systematic deregulation, either de jure or de facto by ignoring regulatory oversight or simply paying lip service to it (SEC chairman: "Say, you boys over there at Bear Stearns aren't doing anything I should know about, are you?" *winkwink*), of the Bush administration was teasing the tiger with a thick steak on the wrong side of a short fence. It was asking for trouble. It was practically BEGGING for it.

Combined with the recent hard-line business attitude that economic royalists have taken since at least the Reagan administration (another Republican), which has seen huge companies overthrown because any shlub with a sufficient credit line thought he could squeeze more shareholder value out of the company than current ownership, and you have a deadly combination.

Management at corporations have had to genuflect to the shareholders, but those shareholders have tended more and more to focus on the short-term quarterly profit than the more nebulous, less objective, "value of the company".

The "self-interest", if you will. As companies have gotten bigger and bigger and more out of touch with their customers and the community, we've seen less and less accountability, less and less care, on the part of the corporation.

Which I think may have been Adams' point: business combinations, whether in the form of conglomerates, mergers, or even simply a gathering of minds at the watering hole on a Friday night to split up a market, mean less attention is paid to the business at hand: providing society with the benefits it deserves from putting up with the plunder of capitalists.

Smith, in other words, believed that so long as people could remain human, capitalism would always be in balance with the rest of society.

And yet, we've all seen that this was not the case, and in my estimation, could never have been the case: Greed is a powerful intoxicant.

That may be why it is one of the seven deadly sins. Which now brings us to the message at hand for today.

I've often wondered how capitalism can exist in a society that considers itself Christian.

Indeed, for the first two thousand years, give or take a couple of centuries, Christianity banned capitalism, on the grounds that earning money on money or charging more for a good than what it cost, was a form of usury, which is barred in the Old Testament.

In 1635, a Massachussetts man was convicted of "greed"...yes, it was a crime!...because he earned 6% on his sales, which was 2% more than the law allowed.

A law! About greed! Unthinkable today!

Christ himself warned against the accumulation of wealth. You might recall the "camel thru the eye of the needle" parable.

We see that Christianity is antithetical, even hostile, towards capitalism and vice versa. Why?

Because Christianity is about your fellow man, and capitalism is about, well, taking that fellow to the cleaners. Capitalism is soulless, godless and worships nothing so much as efficiency, the more ruthless, the better.

That's not me saying that. That's the damn system, which rewards short term efficiencies, even if it means breaking the law or the covenants of society, in order to squeeze one more dollar out of a transaction.

Greed pervades the system. Greed is inherent in the homeowner who borrows more money that he can realistically afford to pay back, because he's certain the value of his home will increase exponentially, and that value is his nest egg for retirement.

Greed is inherent in the banker who finances that mortgage, who knows that when the house of cards falls down people are going to get hurt, but he can justify the month's loan activity to his regional office with increases, not decreases, only.

Greed is inherent in the broker who bundles that mortgage along with countless others in a resaleable bite-size package to a series of investors looking to make money off other people's pains. The idea was to diversify the risk, to take the mortgages off the banks' books and to hand the risk over to other people who needed to balance their portfolios, but you know what happened: everyone jumped into the game and soon not enough good mortgages were floating around, so people just effectively packaged "junk mortgage bonds" and passed them off as AAA credits.

Greed, in other words: squeeze them for every buck you can get.

Greed is inherent in the municipalities, states and even the Federal Government, who all benefit from higher home values and balance their budgets on the backs of the greedy in the form of property taxes and the income taxes upon sale or disposal of the property, as the greedy homeowner climbs the social ladder to his McMansion built on his veery own McCloud in the McSky.

Do none of these people, for there must be a whole lot of crossover here, listen in church when the minister or priest talks about the evils of greed?

I've always believed that America, being somewhat psychotic in this regard, should make a choice: God or mammon.

If you're going to choose God, then turn communist. Communism and Christianity are perfectly suited to each other: to each according to his needs, from each according to his ability dovetails nicely with love thy neighbor and turn the other cheek.

If you're going to choose mammon, money, then drop the fucking pretense of being godly. It insults my God and it's silly on its face. I mean, seriously, is there a stupider sight than to see John McCain shocked, SHOCKED, to find there's no one minding the store?

(Showing Memeorandum da love)