This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed in the summer of 2020.
(Ever wonder why – since the overwhelming majority of people would prefer peace to conflict, kindness to cruelty, justice to injustice – the world is the way it is? I’ve devoted the last half century to showing how the various systems of civilization have dynamics of their own that shape our future, sometimes in ways detrimental to what we’d choose. This is one small example.)
Profit-seeking is built into a market economy. But that doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable that the whole corporate system must be as totally possessed by the insatiable Spirit of Greed that we have seen in the American corporate system of our times.
“A half-century ago,” Robert Reich has written, “CEOs typically managed companies for the benefit of all their stakeholders—not just shareholders, but also their employees, communities, and the nation as a whole.” And he quoted the chairman of Standard Oil as declaring that “Business managers… see in their work the basic responsibilities [to the public] that other professional men have long recognized as theirs.”
“This view,” Reich says, “was a common view among chief executives of the time. Fortune magazine urged CEOs to become ‘industrial statesmen.’ And to a large extent, that’s what they became.”
But the conduct of the corporate system in the America of our times shows that the insatiable quest for wealth has eliminated concern for all other values. Two recent examples demonstrate how Greed has driven today’s corporate system to act contrary to the most basic values of an American nation built on Judeo-Christian morality and founded on a democratic vision.
1) One example is how the corporate world has dealt with climate change.
For their own short-term profits, the mighty fossil fuel industry has lied to the public to prevent urgently needed action to minimize the level chaos and destruction that will befall our civilization and planet – the world our children and grandchildren will have to live in as the climate destabilization scenario unfolds in the coming years.
While the fossil fuel industry has worked to deceive and cripple the society in the face of the greatest challenge ever to face humankind, the rest of the corporate world has been basically mute. Which is not what any decent citizen with a prominent voice would do.
2) Then there’s the way Big Money pushed through an obscene tax cut for itself, transferring trillions of dollars to the corporate system and the billionaires at the expense of the American people as a whole, present and future.
It is all the more obscene for the Money Power to pursue that money-grab at a time when the gap of income and wealth inequality between the richest and the rest is already the widest in living memory — an inequality of a magnitude that is known to damage the health and well-being of a society in many ways.
How did the ethic “industrial statesmen” of a couple of generations ago get so completely overpowered by insatiable greed that the most fundamental dimensions of the common good cease to have any weight in governing the conduct of the corporate system?
Here’s why, I propose, as time goes by in a market economy, there will be a natural tendency for the system to devolve into one in which greed is unchecked.
Although the drive toward profit-making is central to a market economy, that drive inevitably first emerges out of a society in which the traditional elements of the society’s moral culture remain strong.
But as time passes, a kind of “selective force” operates to magnify the emphasis on profit:
- In the economy, power will always go to those who wield the most money — for that’s what grants power in the economy.
- Other things being equal, that money-power will tend to go to those who care the most for getting money, and are the least restrained by concern for other values.
- Their power will enable those individuals and organizations most purely driven by greed who, over time, will get to shape the terms for the economy.
- That means that — as the generations go by, and in the absence of some effort by society to prevent it — the Spirit of Greed will gain ground in the corporate world, setting up the game so that it maximally rewards those most inclined to seek only profit, those most willing to trample on other values to further enrich themselves.
Hence, eventually, we come to what we see in today’s America: a corporate system is totally possessed by greed.
Greed, being insatiable, inevitably spills out of the economic realm. And so we see also how Big Money works to dominate the political process: not only crippling the society’s political response to climate change and transferring wealth to the richest from the rest, but opening the financial floodgates (like Citizens United) to transform democracy itself into plutocracy.
If that is the natural way for a corporate system to evolve, then it behooves us to ask ourselves:
How can we set up a force of moral culture to prevent this natural devolution, to makes sure that power does not go more and more to those who care less and less about anything but money and power?
Insatiability—when the richest never command enough wealth, when the mightiest still lust for more power – is a sure sign of brokenness. We cannot count of systems humans create to automatically create the wholeness we regard as sacred.