When people ask about your kids, what do you tell them? More than likely, you tell them about the teams they play on, the activities they’re involved in, their progress in school and their accomplishments, right? My kids are older so I talk about the success they have found in their careers.
One of my twins is a successful banker. His brother has worked for a growing software company for the last decade or so. I am very proud of them. They are both moral, do-the-right-thing people.
Despite their focus on succeeding at business, I don’t think of them as greedy. I think of them as successful.
The media focuses our attention on the 1%, the billionaires whose wealth is beyond the dreams of most people. I think it’s important to get past the headlines. Most of the wealthy got where they are by creating value through a product or service they invented and/or sold or by risking their personal capital in an enterprise with potential.
The big thinkers at Amazon and Google transformed the way we buy things and became billionaires in the process. Warren Buffet studied investment and became one of the world’s richest men. The innovations of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and J. Craig Venter have all improved our lives and made them wealthy.
If you read the business news you might conclude there is money to be made through innovation in energy production, 3D printing and biotechnology. Some will get very wealthy. That’s how our economy works. Someone develops a product or service that consumers value and wealth is created.
If one of your children made millions in stock options by working for one of these companies, would you think they were greedy? Or, would you be proud of their success?
And, yet there is an undercurrent of intellectual dialog that crops up everywhere from the Sunday morning talk shows to LinkedIn discussions that describes the very wealthy as greedy.
Princeton University is hosting an art exhibit titled “Exhibition to spotlight the environment, corporate greed and consumerism”. Bloomsbury USA has published a children’s book titled “Pandora Gets Greedy” about the exploits of a young girl who searches for greed in the time of the Roman Empire.
Since our founding, Americans have struggled to achieve a balance between freedom to pursue our own ends and a virtuous society. Jonathan Edwards, writing in The Freedom of the Will (1754), insisted that people are free because they pursue what’s in their own best interest. But, he pointed out that human will could be corrupted by pursuing the apparent good for oneself at the expense of the apparent good in God.
More recently, Robert Kennedy warned against a singular focus on GNP [Gross National Product]. Speaking a few months before his assassination, he pointed out that GNP “does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile….”
Can we teach that lesson to our children without undermining their professional and financial success?
The political speech that emanates from the dogma of the left and right will not help us understand how best to create a just society. The liberal egalitarian view seeks to achieve equality by redistributing wealth. The conservative libertarian view says we must respect freedom of choice. If my choices lead to economic success and yours lead to starvation, so be it.
In the end, the extreme libertarian view flies in the face of our Christian or humanist instincts. However, the extreme opposite view – that wealth should be appropriated for the good of those less fortunate – undermines our economic prosperity and the value of hard work.
Wealth is not, in and of itself, evil. To describe those who attain it as greedy ignores the positive impact of our prosperity. To be sure, if you are reading this post on your iPad while sitting in Starbucks, you are enjoying the fruits of a society built on capitalism. If you still have your teeth after age 60, have two cars in the garage and have time to play with your children, it is because of the value created by innovation and enterprise since the founding of our nation.
So, is it progress or is it greed?
WHO WILL LEAD?
WHO WILL LEAD?