Are Washington and Wall Street merely imitating us?
It’s interesting how those who rail against Wall Street greed—or the greed of the faceless, nameless “They”—usually overlook the greed of those on Main Street. President Obama is a case in point.
During his speech earlier this month, at a high school in rural Kansas, Obama inveighed against “the breathtaking greed of a few” who “plunged our economy and the world into a crisis from which we’re still fighting to recover.”
As Obama tells it, those greedy few sold mortgages “to people who couldn’t afford them, or even sometimes understand them.” Then, “banks and investors” pocketed “huge bonuses made with other people’s money on the line.”
All the while, those of us on Main Street—guileless and good and anything but greedy—relied on “credit cards and home equity loans” to get by. As a result, according to the president, “too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt.”
In short, Obama focuses his ire and wags his scolding finger at “banks and investors,” while giving the rest of us a pass.
To be sure, greed motivated the people who run the banks and mortgage houses and credit card companies—and still does. But didn’t greed also motivate those who bought houses and took on mortgages they “couldn’t afford”? Didn’t greed motivate some of those who used credit cards and home equity lines to live way beyond their means?
Indeed, Americans may deride deficit spending, but Washington is merely imitating us. Americans hold some $900 billion in credit-card debt, and according to the financial-data clearinghouse Bankrate, four out 10 American families spend more than they earn annually.
One contributing factor in this is greed, and it has nothing to do with Wall Street.
Likewise, we may say we oppose big government, but we are fond of particular government programs:
• The new healthcare law may be unpopular today. But in 2009, polls revealed that 75 percent of the country supported universal coverage.
• In 1997, 33 percent of undergraduates borrowed easy money through the federal student loan program. By 2007, that number was 42 percent. With the recent federal takeover of student loans, that percentage will explode.
• According to a federal report unearthed by The Atlantic, “The share of personal income that comes from government-transfer programs” has grown from 5.9 cents of every dollar in 1950 to 17.3 cents in 2009.
Aren’t these functions of a kind of greed? And doesn’t a special kind of greed—the greed for power and position and approval—motivate those who write and sign laws that create these programs? Isn’t it this same greed for power and approval that keeps politicians promising more programs, more spending, more services? Programs like “free” health care to ease the burdens on the middle class (and increase government dependency), “free” prescriptions to make life easier (and cheaper) for senior citizens, “free” college education, the list goes on.
But back to our conscience-in-chief. Outsourcing is another bogeyman of Obama’s crusade against “the breathtaking greed of a few.” He bemoans how “even higher-skilled jobs…can be outsourced to countries like China or India,” and how “if you’re somebody whose job can be done cheaper by a computer or someone in another country, you don’t have a lot of leverage with your employer when it comes to asking for better wages or better benefits, especially since fewer Americans today are part of a union.”
There it is again: some faceless, greedy employer outsourcing work to pocket more for himself.
In fact, outsourcing is what companies do when the cost of doing something off-site is cheaper and/or more efficient than the cost of doing it in-house. It’s no different than what those of us who live on Main Street do when we send out our dry-cleaning, go to the drive-through for dinner, take our cars to the car wash or hire an exterminator. The vast majority of us are capable of cleaning our own laundry, making our own meals, washing our cars and killing pests. But it’s either cheaper or easier (or both) to pay someone else to do it.
Does that make us greedy or smart? If it’s the latter, why is it wrong for an employer to make the same decision based on the same calculus?
In short, Wall Street and bankers and employers and management and CEOs and “They” don’t have a monopoly on greed. Virtually everyone wants more. Virtually no one would rather save for a house, sacrifice for an education, settle for a clunker or defer to tomorrow what we want today. Virtually everyone would rather get something for nothing—or at least pay less for that something. Virtually no one is ever satisfied. That’s human nature.
Given that President Obama believes government can do and solve everything, it’s no surprise that he believes government can fix this problem of the human condition. But the reality is that it’s not a president’s place or job to determine whose greed is OK and whose is unacceptable.
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