Greed Isn’t Good, But It Isn’t That Bad, Either

October 14, 2008 - 9:00 AM
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America has always valued success. But at the same time, we’ve had a love affair with class warfare. Big businessmen – railroad tycoons, bankers and cattlemen – became easy targets for our discontent.
 
Wealth, success, power could be summed up as one of the Seven Deadly Sins – greed. It’s ironic that we complain about one such sin and celebrate another – envy.
 
Over time, railroad men morphed into Wall Street men, railroading poor working people. Henry Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life” got a makeover and became Gordon Gekko of “Wall Street.” And the go-go ’80s became defined by Gekko’s famous “Greed is good” line.
 
The media love that story. They love dressing up businessmen in black hats like J.R. Ewing. They especially love it when a Republican is in the White House. Those Reagan era businessmen got none of the accolades common to their compatriots in the dot-com bust.
 
Now we’re in a new down business cycle and the only thing down further than the Dow is the treatment of businessmen in the media.
 
The term “greed” is everywhere. Back in 2004, author Fr. Andrew Greeley said it was a national problem, claiming “America’s Disease is Greed.” That disease certainly has infected the mainstream media. We have “greedy businessmen,” “greedy CEOs” in almost every form. Even last year’s ABC show “Dirty Sexy Money” advertised “murder, greed, power,” as if the three go together like bacon, lettuce and tomato. “Greedy” and “CEO” are linked so often that Webster’s might as well create a new entry for next year – “greedy-CEO.” Just say hyphenate.
 
Both presidential candidates have declared they oppose such a filthy idea. The GOP’s Sen. John McCain told ABC’s “Nightline” on September 18 it was time for a “change.” “We’re going to reform the way Wall Street does business and put an end to the greed that has driven our markets into chaos,” he claimed.
 
Not to be outdone, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama wants to take on Wall Street as well. He told CBS “Evening News” September 25 said the current economic problems are partially “a consequence of speculator greed.” The two candidates play the blame game so much, it’s hard to find them not blaming greed.
 
It’s not just politicians. It’s easy to find journalists or entertainment media blasting the five or six letter forms of our new four-letter word. That played out on CBS’s “60 Minutes” October 5. Correspondent Steve Kroft attacked credit default swaps and said a “huge shadow market” coupled with “greed and incompetence” ultimately caused the financial crisis.
 
ABC’s Bill Weir tapped into the typical theme during a September 28 story about the bailout. “And what about the simmering resentment? Of course, both campaigns are tapping into the populist idea the resentment that the average worker’s taxes are bailing out greedy CEOs,” he asked during the “Good Morning America” segment.
 
While Ariel Investments President Mellody Hobson defended the bailout, she didn’t get the chance to respond to the typical anti-business assault.
 
Over at CBS, we get the humor and the hypocrisy of anchor Katie Couric criticizing greed. Back in 2006, and back when the Dow was doing well, Couric’s news was cast in red as she commemorated the five-year-old Enron scandal. She referred to former Enron executive Jeff Skilling, “who became a poster boy for corporate greed” and was sentenced to more than 24 years in prison.
 
She played off the identical theme in February of 2007 claiming the “Wall Street mantra of ‘greed is good’ has been replaced by ‘green is good.’” Green certainly has been good for Couric, who earns an estimated $15 million a year heading up the least popular evening news show on the Big Three networks.
 
It’s not just that “greedy” Katie Couric earns so much. According to Forbes, average CEO pay for 2008 is $12.8 million, an 18 percent decline from the previous year and less than what they earned in 2000. Also, it’s a couple million a year less than Couric earns – again for putting out an unpopular product.
 
And how many employees does Couric lead? Do her decisions help make or break the careers of thousands of people who report to her? No. Does she have too much pride to take on such a responsibility or she just too lazy, making sloth her own deadly sin?
 
It’s probably neither. While Couric and her fellow journalists might envy the wealth and success of a typical CEO, that’s not their worst vice. The seven sins need to be updated to account for a modern media.
 
Let’s add hypocrisy to the list.