6 signs greed has destroyed American culture

More than ever, we seem infatuated with the fruits of unproductive avarice

Published December 9, 2015 9:00AM (EST)


This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet The love of money for money’s sake is the social disease of our time. We see it all around us: in the celebration of ill-gotten stock gains, public admiration for the heads of criminal banks, the words of Kanye West, in the commercialization of charity and even spirituality.

This adoration of wealth isn’t a new thing, of course. When I was in elementary school I was sent to a school counselor for being moody, introspective – in other words, for being either a proto-goth or a writer in the making. I was asked to draw a picture of myself as a happy adult, and the resulting portrait showed a rich man standing beside a Rolls-Royce with an ascot around his neck.

In defense of my childhood self, the Beatles were famous for their Rolls-Royces at the time and the Beatles seemed happy. The ascot was borrowed from my TV hero, a millionaire playboy turned a police detective, on a show called Burke’s Law. Like any good consumer in the making, I had internalized these images of wealth and had come to equate them with happiness. And what did we know about the angst of the rich in Utica, NY, in a family of five living on a community college professor’s income?

The United States of the 1960s was a nation filled with optimism. For many (though definitely not all) Americans it was a time of opportunity. Education was affordable, families could live comfortably on a single adult income, and the country seem to be on an endless upward trajectory of prosperity. We were expanding in every way, so rapidly that only the depths of space seemed able to contain the people we were about to become.

The fantasy of wealth seemed somehow different in that context. Today we’re a nation being preached to by “bipartisan” corporate politicians who lecture us on the impossibility of even the selfishness of expecting a livable Social Security income in our old age. Or a living wage in our working years. Or an affordable education, so our children can live a better life economically than we did.

Yet we're more infatuated with the fruits of unproductive greed today, it seems, then we were back then. Here are six signs that our culture is sick with greed.

1. There’s still no public shame in profiting off Wall Street fraud.

This week a self-styled financial advisor on the investment website Seeking Alpha celebrated the investment opportunities created by the wave of criminality and fraud which has overtaken JP Morgan Chase. The bank’s epidemic of internal fraud has led to tens of billions in fines during the tenure of CEO Jamie Dimon.

“More investigations, please.” That’s how the short report begins, before going on to describe how the stock has risen despite the record fraud settlements against the bank and multiple ongoing civil and criminal investigations. An investment analyst is quoted as follows:  "If you were a high-tech stock ... being called a utility would kill the stock price ... but being a financial (entity) called a utility is very positive."

What he’s saying is that banks are essential to the functioning of society, like a public utility. But unlike traditional public utilities, they’re entrusted to profit-driven executives with a long history of documented criminality. But to date there have been no indictments of senior Wall Street executives, because senior government officials have made it clear they don’t want to endanger the banks by enforcing the law. That’s why “being a financial entity called a utility is very positive.”

Legal and political implications aside, what’s astonishing is the lack of shame associated with being a bank executive whose organization has committed so many crimes—or an investment analyst to openly celebrate those crimes as an opportunity to make money at society’s expense.

Even as the world was still learning of Wall Street’s extensive criminality, Dimon was the subject of a fawning profile in the New York Times Sunday magazine, which detailed at length Dimon’s hurt feelings and irritation toward those audacious enough to criticize him.

Dimon, who at the time was being lionized by presidents and politicians alike, complained that he felt “bullied”  because President Obama—whose administration had studiously avoided any criminal investigation of Dimon’s bank–had described bankers as “fat cats.”

Andrew Ross Sorkin did the same thing for the same newspaper three years later, dismissing as “bloodlust” calls for Dimon’s resignation in the wake of yet more billion-dollar fraud revelations about his bank. Even now, after all the revelations of crimes which include investor fraud, shareholder fraud, perjury, forgery, violation of international sanctions laws and laws designed to protect members of the US Armed Forces—even now it’s possible to treat bank CEOs as victims in the pages of our country’s newspaper of record.

Condemning that record isn’t bloodlust. It’s morality.

2. Greedy CEOs still have credibility in the media.

It’s not just Dimon, of course. Having shattered the middle class through their accumulation of wealth, the devastation they inflicted on the global economy, and their mistreatment of employee pension funds, Wall Street CEOs apparently still have enough credibility in some quarters to be treated as experts in fiscal responsibility.

They’re using that credibility to suggest that the American middle-class accept cuts to Social Security and Medicare, two of the few programs left to protect them from the effects of runaway corporate greed.

A lobbying organization called Fix the Debt is trading on what remains of Wall Street’s credibility, and that of other greed-driven corporate leaders, in its campaign to cut badly needed social programs like these. Astonishingly—or not, especially if you look at their ownership structures—American news outlets accord these CEOs an extraordinary and unearned measure of respectability and authority. Very few articles about Fix the Debt mention the massive fraud settlements and fines levied against these CEOs’ institutions.

CEOs aren’t “greedy” by definition. But most of the ones on Fix the Debt’slist fit that description. Most of the ones who aren’t running Wall Street banks lead defense contracting firms that earn excessive profits from the US taxpayer, while lecturing those same taxpayers on the need for the middle class to cut back on its expectations of financial security when it reaches retirement age.

Fix the Debt is one of a number of interlocking organizations which are largely financed by right-wing billionaire Pete Peterson, who made his money in the hedge fund business and yet is treated by many journalists as if he were Mother Teresa.

3. Executives are now trained to rip people off.

This writer spent a number of years in the business world during the 1980s and 1990s, as corporate America was transforming itself from a customer-driven set of industries to a greed-driven and conscienceless wealth extraction machine for the investor class.

In the early 1990s a group of us were attending a corporate training session run by ex-hippies who now did in-house “teambuilding” exercises for large corporations. As they set us up for our various role-playing games they told us anecdotes about business “innovations,” anecdotes that were meant to inspire “out-of-the-box thinking” among the middle-management executives in attendance.

The first story they told was about the Gillette Company. As most non-bearded men know, the Gillette business model is a sneaky one. The company ropes customers in with low-cost razors and then charges an outrageous amount for replacement blades.

Out of roughly 60 people in attendance, only one other person and I objected that this was a deceptive model.

The next example was that of a pay phone company which wanted to increase turnover in the use of its phones. With barely restrained glee, the instructor described the “brilliant” thinking of a junior executive who proposed that bricks be put in the handsets of all their phones. In the same “brainstorming” session, another executive suggested making the surfaces underneath the phones slanted, so that people couldn’t leave their things there while they spoke on the phone.

The net result was that people paid a quarter to use a pay phone, but then grew uncomfortable and were unable to complete their calls. The beauty of it (from the instructor’s point of view) was that they didn’t even know why they were hanging up. They merely had an unsatisfying customer experience, while the phone company got to turn over customers more quickly and collect more quarters. Again, only two or three people objected that this was poor customer service, and an underhanded way to deal with customers.

If you multiply our experience ten thousandfold, you have an idea of the enculturation which is taking place every day in companies all across the country. That’s not to say there aren’t companies that still believe in customer service; there are, and I’m grateful every time I encounter one. But the corporate culture of America has become a culture of cheating, manipulation and greed.

(The pay phone industry in this country is dead. Karma, as they say, is a bitch.)

4. And then there’s Kanye.

Our idealization of greed isn’t confined to the business section of our newspapers. While white liberals decry the idealization of wealth and hip-hop music, that’s not a new phenomenon either. In fact, it can be found in both lifestyles and the recordings of their own childhood musical heroes.

“Money can’t buy everything it’s true, but what it can’t buy I can’t use ….”

There has always been a tension in popular music between the comfortable idealism of those who come from wealthy backgrounds and the aspirational materialism of pop musicians who were raised in poverty and/or financial insecurity. That latter list includes Elvis Presley, the Beatles, James Brown, and many of today’s hip-hop artists.

As the seminal R&B producer/songwriter/performer Swamp Dogg put it in the 1970s: “I’m not selling out, I’m buying in.”

The best of those artists—the Beatles, Brown, and now Kanye West—have struggled to reconcile the drive which help them escape poverty with the idealism that made them gifted artists.

Kanye ran into some controversy with his track “New Slaves.” Many people were offended that he equated his own wealth with slavery and Jim Crow laws. It’s Kanye’s charm, as well as his curse, to speak everything that comes into his mind. But we think he was onto something with his line about “throwing back the Maybach keys” and his lyrics about the expectation that African-American celebrities will be excessive spenders.

Self-made celebrities often act as ritualized consumers on behalf of the general public. Their job is to swallow up the most excessive luxuries the wealthy lifestyle has to offer. They inadvertently use their power and influence to reinforce the corporate-driven, consumerist tropes that keep us enslaved to our own material desires.

By naming the phenomenon and ritually “throwing the keys,” Kanye West is trying to break a pattern that has stretched from Tupelo in Mississippi to Compton in California, from Liverpool in England to Bed-Sty and Brownsville in New York.

5. Insight and spirituality are being commercialized ….

As I wrote in “Buying Wisdom” for Tricycle magazine, even ancient spiritual traditions like Buddhism are being co-mingled with idealized visions of what it means to be a billionaire. From TED talks to mindfulness conferences like the Wisdom 2.0 conference, the search for individual and collective insight is becoming increasingly identified with the desire to accumulate wealth.

“You can have it all,” these events seem to say. “You can gain peace of mind, unlock the mysteries of human existence, and become a billionaire at the same time.” Some of these events even seem to argue that they are one and the same journey. It’s Nirvana—with corporate sponsorship.

6. … and so is kindness to our fellow human beings.

Sometimes these events sell charity as spiritual amnesty for corporate executives. As I sat through the 2011 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting, it occurred to me that I had just seen several different photographs of happy African children dancing in the water from wells they might not have needed if not for the economic predation of corporations like the ones that had dug the wells.

The Clinton Initiative has promoted misleading deficit-reduction materials (in partnership with the hedge fund billionaire Peterson and his associates). It featured a leader from Morgan Stanley —one of the institutions which was instrumental in causing the 2008 financial crisis—talking about how to recover from the financial crisis, alongside a celebrity appearance by Eva Longoria.

It’s not just the Clintons. In the midst of negotiating yet another multibillion-dollar fraud settlement, JPMorgan Chase was given the honor (and the public relations coup) of sponsoring the fundraising concert for victims of Hurricane Sandy headlined by the Rolling Stones.

But then, the Stones have a relationship with big banks that goes back to their sponsorship deal with AmeriQuest, the mortgage company which was slammed for deceitful practices and discriminatory lending toward minorities.

That’s not to say corporate charity, or for that matter the charity of billionaires, is a bad thing. Everyone should incorporate charity into their way of life, and those who are most fortunate should give the most in return. Nobody argues with that. The sickness comes when we allow certain types of charity to glorify the giver, or when it’s considered impolite to mention any relationship between, say, the excessive wealth accumulation of the givers and the need for charity in the first place.

Soul Sickness

Today there are countless signs that our culture is sick with greed. You don’t need to be told that. Just look around.

I never was able to afford the Rolls-Royce of my childhood fantasy, and ascots have gone out of style. But then, those things were only an expression of pain. They reflected a deep yearning to be somewhere else, to be someone else, to escape the daily trials of my everyday existence and replace them with a fantasy bubble that kept me at a glittering distance from the sufferings of the real world.

Today’s national culture of greed is also an expression of pain and fear. It’s more terrifying than ever to try to survive on a middle-class income. Most people live one or two paychecks away from disaster. Very few of us feel that we have any real control over our own fate. The lives of reality show stars and rappers are merely the most obvious of our escapist fantasies.

But as long as we live in a fantasy world, we won’t be working to change the real one. True happiness is found in a life lived with meaning. It’s not just that I can’t afford that car. We can’t afford it. We can’t afford to live in a world where our only aspiration is to accumulate wealth, irrespective of how it’s accumulated, while ignoring the flourishing of the human spirit in its artistic, idealistic and intellectual aspects.

“The love of possessions is a sickness with them,” said Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe. People are losing their lives in the pursuit of wealth and possessions. They’re dying from gunshot wounds and heart attacks, in gang battles and in solitary hospital beds. And it’s getting worse. The symptoms are appearing, not just in ourselves, but in the planet we call home. If we don’t cure it soon, it could prove fatal for all of us.

In celebration of Salon’s 20th anniversary, we’re presenting some of our favorite and most popular stories from our archives.

By R.J. Eskow


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