Not greed, but us.

Not greed, but us.

Back in 1987 a movie called Wall Street was released in theaters, a crime thriller about money, greed, and what one man might do to overcome his upbringing to make it. It was supposed to be a rebuke of much of the excesses of the 80s. Gordon Gekko was supposed to be a bad guy, even if you could see the allure of his stance that greed was good.

Despite all of the bad things people have done for money and power, I think it’s safe to say that greed is at the least a useful impulse, properly contained by systems that encourage people create things in search of wealth. But this containment has been weakened by people that stand for social darwinism, for the glorification of self over the communities they grew up in and by individual self gratification by whatever means necessary. By the mistaken belief that what they have was made without the help of others, or would be possible without the effort of millions of other people.

Today, many of the richest people in the world are not capitalists in the sense that they were prior to the 80s. They are not founders. They are not builders. They are not managers. They are speculators. They are executives that get paid to destroy shareholder value by boards that are not held accountable to stock holders. They find ways of exploiting systems put in place to run the economy and syphon off money wherever they can. And when they fail, they expect the citizens to cover their losses. They are not vital to our economy or our way of life.

Even calling them exploiters is too kind, because at least if you’re exploiting something you’re likely to end up with *something* useful; A barrel of oil, some clothing or a computer. When you expect to be at the highest of the heights of power without producing anything of value other than short term gains for yourself and long term loses for stockholders and citizens, you have not earned your wealth. You are not Henry Rearden, you are the looter you cursed in your teens while reading Atlas Shrugged.

Not everybody can be in the 1%, that’s a tautology. But we can make our country and our people richer by encouraging innovation and productivity. By making it easier for people with good ideas or a strong work ethic to try new things and make all of our lives better. Today Wall Street has and does none of this, other than a strong work ethic. The innovations produced by speculators and bankers over the past generation have not substantially increased liquidity, nor have they made our lives better or allowed them to be more productive. Banks, in fact, are no more productive with 1 billions dollars in reserve than with 100 million. But they can be used to squeeze more money for the individual bankers and executives working there, even if the only way they do so is by taking more risks now guaranteed by the citizens.

Americans should not be afraid to tell people that have not earned their riches that they shouldn’t have them. Nor should we be afraid to tell those that have earned their wealth, that we’re quite glad they’ve earned it, and that we’ll tax some of it so we can keep this country running. Because not everyone can be the 1%. But we can all work together to make the country better for everyone.

Doing this requires hard work and costs money. We should give everyone access to great quality early childhood education. This is a no brainer, it’s a great investment and it’s one that we’re all going to profit from once the beneficiaries grow up. We should ensure that everyone gets access to a quality K-12 education, and can go on to either vocation training or a university without going into debt. Our life’s work should be determined by what we can do, rather than the accident of our births, because we all benefit from people meeting their potential.

People have to get from place to place, and that is something that is generally paid for by the public sector because we all benefit from it. We should invest in transportation that powers our economy while protecting the environment that future generations will live in. Doing otherwise is essentially theft of our grandchildren by those in the present. Sick people aren’t productive, and they should be able to get care. Much of our power is dependent on oil that we’ll be competing with the increasingly middle class world, and we must prepare for a future in which people in China, India and Brazil can pay for a barrel of oil as much as we can. All of this costs money, and all of this will help determine what wealth we have in the future.

We live in a very rich country. That’s great. What we can’t do is forget about what it took to produce that wealth in the first place. Not greed, but us.