Looking for Greed in All the Wrong Places

A well-educated, intelligent high school classmate of mine, who now works in public higher education, recently posted a joke on her facebook page (I modified her use of a sexual insult to describe Tea Party activists):

“A unionized public employee, a Tea Partier, and a CEO are sitting around a plate of a dozen cookies. The CEO takes eleven cookies, looks at the Tea Partier, and says ‘Watch out for that union guy…I think he wants your cookie’.”

Gordon Gecko, the iconic insider and money-grubber, epitomized in the movie “Wall Street” what some apparently believe to be the only word in the world about greed. It is as if everything we know in our collective conscience to be true about greed and about capitalism we obtained from that movie.

Indeed, given recent trends in political discourse, given the “buffet of buffoonery” occuring in Wisconsin over reigning in union expense, and now Michael Moore’s recent hysterical comments that rich people’s money is not theirs, but “part of the national resourses”, I would not be surprised to find that the Wikipedia entry for “greed” simply played a clip of Gordon Gecko’s famous speech from “Wall Street,” while its entry for humility was simply a photo of Wisconsin union protestors.

I’m reminded of the old Looney Tune cartoon in which Bugs and Daffy get lost and find a genie’s hidden treasure (“Nyah, I should have taken a left turn at Albuquerque”).  Daffy sets out to stuff his pockets with all manner of goodies, until he finds the biggest pearl in the place. His conversation is then reduced to the proclamation “Mine, mine, all mine!”, which we would all agree to be a manifestation of pure greed.

But was Daffy greedy only after he got the pearl? Or did his greed compel him to fight all comers — including Bugs and the genie — and to give up all else in order to secure it? (He gave up his stature, too, when the genie ended up shrinking Daffy…yet his greed remained full-size).

We are, in our present political and cultural discourse, working from the assumption that only those who already have can be greedy. Those who want everything from them — or who simply want more, more, more — cannot, we suppose, be greedy.

It is a fact that those on the right too infrequently castigate the rampant capitalist for his greed, yet those on the left too often seem willing to cite only the capitalist for greed, when it is obvious that they hold no monopoly — pun intended — on that deadly vice.

My friend’s joke was meant to portray the greedy and his victim. It was funny, as jokes go. But perhaps the unionized public employee didn’t get too worked up because his greed was sated: he was getting his cookies straight from the State kitchen, for life.

Are CEOs all bad? No. Are unions all bad? No. My point is simply that accusing one group of sinful behavior, while considering it impossible that another is also guilty, is naive and not beneficial to public discourse and the resolution of civic problems.

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