Greed is good

CKHartman at CKHartman at
Wed Jun 10 02:00:51 PDT 1998


I do some work with United for a Fair Economy (, a non-profit in Boston that does presentations on economic inequality for community organizations, college students, church groups, unions and others. We present various statistics on the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us. People generally don't have a problem agreeing that the gap exists and that it's getting wider. And generally, people are concerned.

The key snag in getting people up off their backsides is cultural, not a lack of information about inequality. People are plain terrified of the alternatives to capitalism. Basically it all boils down to: nobody wants to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

In trying to figure out how to combat this, we've been looking at the places where average folks get cultural information about the economy. One example was a one-hour "special report" on greed, hosted by 20/20's John Stossell, which aired on ABC back in February (conclusion: greed is good). It's filled with all sorts of anecdotes and seductive arguments about capitalism which are hard to refute with a chart on the Gini index.

Would anybody like to take a crack at answering a few of these gems? I've included one sequence from the Greed Special below; if people find this enjoyable/useful, I'll deal out some others. If not, no big deal.

--Chris Hartman

Excerpt from ABC Special on Greed:

JOHN STOSSEL: We're back at Mr. Vanderbilt's house, which to me looks like a perfect example of greed. Who needs this much house? Just looking at its size makes me think of all the poorer people who don't have a house because robber barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt took so much.

(Clip from "Wall Street")

MICHAEL DOUGLAS, Actor: With the money you're going to make...

JOHN STOSSEL: (voice-over) The movie "Wall Street" gave us reasons to resent the rich.

(Clip from "Wall Street")

CHARLIE SHEEN, Actor: So tell me, Gordon. When does it all end, huh? How many yachts can you water ski behind? How much is enough?

MICHAEL DOUGLAS: It's not a question of enough, pal. It's a zero-sum game. Somebody wins. Somebody loses. Money itself isn't lost or made, it's simply transferred.

JOHN STOSSEL: (voice-over) "A zero-sum game" Michael Douglas calls it. That means if I win, you lose.

DAVID KELLEY: That's really a child's view of -- of how the world works.

JOHN STOSSEL: (voice-over) Philosopher David Kelley studies markets.

DAVID KELLEY: It's like we're all children sitting around the dinner table, and a pie comes. It's dessert time. Mom sets a pie down on the table. If I get a bigger piece, you get a smaller piece. But in reality, there's no mom there putting a pie down on the table. We're producers. We create wealth.

JOHN STOSSEL: (voice-over) Bill Gates is a good example. He's now the world's richest man. He's got about $40 billion. But does his having $40 billion mean the rest of us have lost $40 billion? No.

BILL GATES, CEO, Microsoft Corporation: It's been fantastic...

DAVID KELLEY: You see, this is the fallacy that there is some pool of wealth there that's fixed. And if I take more, you get less. That's not true. Wealth is constantly being created.

JOHN STOSSEL: (voice-over) Gates got so rich by making the pie bigger for everyone.

BILL GATES: A key benefit of Windows 95 is...

JOHN STOSSEL: (voice-over) He actually baked a whole new pie. His software created new ways of saving time and money, created thousands of new jobs. Baby Doc got rich by forcing people to give him money. He could do that because he was the government. If you didn't pay his taxes, his troops could jail you or worse.

It was the same with Imelda Marcos and the British royal family. They got the money they have by using the power of government to compel people to give it to them. The capitalist can't do that.

(on camera) Bill Gates may be just as greedy as Baby Doc. But to get your money, he has to persuade you, entice you.

BILL GATES: We designed Windows 95...

JOHN STOSSEL: (voice-over) To do that, he has to make something that we will willingly give him money for. All commerce requires both parties to benefit. Take the simplest example. I buy a quart of milk.

CASHIER: One dollar, please.

JOHN STOSSEL: (voice-over) I hand her the dollar; she gives me the milk. We both benefit, because she wanted the dollar more than the milk, and I wanted the milk more than the dollar. This is why often both of us say...

CASHIER: Thank you.

JOHN STOSSEL: (on camera) Thank you.

(voice-over) Everyone wins. Unless someone cheats... Greed is a terrible thing if it leads people to cheat. But over the years, I noticed the cheaters rarely get that rich.

(on camera) People wise up, stop buying the product. To get really rich, people usually have to work very hard at giving you something you want...

(voice-over) ...better cars, cheaper clothes, faster food, whatever. The businessman has to win you over.

DAVID KELLEY: From day one, he has to be concerned with, "Who's buying this? What need am I satisfying?" And if that's called greed, then I say, greed is good.

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