Barbara Bush acknowledged a number of years ago, possibly when First Lady, what she believed was the most pressing problem in America.
We have heard a great deal about greed on Wall Street. Bankers who want to make tens of millions of dollars, even in failure, investors who want guarantees on their placed bets, and others on Wall Street who suck the life out of the average Joe. These observations may be correct.
There is also greed on Main Street. A young man and woman who earn between them $100,000, sounds like a lot of money although by present standards it is not, and they want a mortgage on a house that costs $300,000. And a greedy banker says to himself, I will satiate my desires by capitalizing on their desires. The cost of greed trickles down like the benefits of a robust economy. Greed evaporates the positive impact of a robust economy from the bottom up too. It is a two way street.
Greed has the uncanny knack of always wanting to find someone or something to blame. It is like a disease. Barbara Bush was right; greed undermines the fabric or our nation. It leads to dishonesty, cheating, and all manner of unflattering behavior compromising the vitality of a productive society.
The university, our university, can teach calculus, writing skills, history, chemistry, traditional lifestyles, alternative lifestyles, the benefits of sharing the wealth, or a free market, and a host of other subjects but we cannot teach the only antidote to greed: Individually exercised morality.
We can teach comparative ethics. We can teach world religions, and interestingly not a single one teaches that greed is good.
The truth of this problem is that people don’t become moral by studying comparative religions or comparative ethics. They become informed, maybe even knowledgeable. Gut instincts regarding greed are so basic and deeply embedded that no one has to tell a person that it is wrong to claim that something that is not theirs is theirs. It’s an impropriety deeply ingrained in the human psyche…in our souls. Unfortunately it will not always stop us.
Most greedy people, which can include any or all of us on a given day, find ways to acquire without earning and find little if any satisfaction in what they get. This starts a vicious cycle. We want more.
Money, homes, boats, cars, vacations, degrees, prestige, stature, power and the multitude of other material achievements, accomplishments and possessions, these things drive men and women to seek what should be good in a way that makes them wrong.
The blame lies with Madison Avenue. Pitchmen create want. They have many willing accomplices: free moral agents operating on a special high octane and readily available fuel.
I wish that there was a way, in a public university, that we could teach something that ameliorates this lust for what is inappropriate. Maybe we can’t. But maybe in a healthy way we can teach the moral exercise of free will. We can do as another first lady suggested. Nancy Reagan implored young people, regarding drugs, to take a simple stand.
Just say no.
Can we teach that at our university? Certainly, by example and action, but I don’t believe theorizing will work.