Thursday, November 13, 2008

Greed or Good

A while back I was sitting in the waiting area of the Veterans Administration Service office in Columbus, Georgia, and the conversation unfolding in that place was priceless. At the VA office, you arrive, sign in, and wait for a counselor to see you, with two or ten or twenty other people also waiting. I'm not a veteran; my mother is. She was a Master Sergeant in the Women's Army Corps and I was seeing the VA on her behalf. Others in the waiting room included widows, wives, and veterans of various vintages. They talked about Congress and other political figures; the economy that has ordinary people losing jobs and life savings while rich executives get golden parachutes; the length of wait in the VA office; Hurricanes Ike and Katrina (one of the waiting vets was a Mississippi native, his home community hard hit); the troubled state of the world; the length of the wait in the VA office; and the bankruptcy of Bill Heard Chevrolet, a company which originated in Columbus, had been headline news in Columbus for days, and was regarded in the VA waiting room as emblematic of larger issues.

There was a framed map of the world on the waiting room wall. One of the vets—a loquacious black man now employed as a barber—jumped up and ran his finger around the edge of the world map. "There's enough in this world," he said, "Enough for everyone, everywhere, except for greed!" His listeners nodded or said, "Mmmm—hmmm."

"Greed is good" is a famous line from the movie Wall Street. Greed regarded as good is how we got Wall Street's meltdown and worldwide casino capitalism in which everyone loses except the ultra rich. The greed-good equation created the perverted alchemy in which diamonds—marvels of the physical world—turn to blood because of the way they are mined and sold to fund wars. In another perverse alchemy, books—marvels of the imaginative world—become commodities, the commercially successful ones ground like wheat through the commercial mill, the unsuccessful ones thrown out like chaff. The same thing happens to music and visual arts.

Greed is one of the classical Seven Deadly Sins. (Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride.) In today's world greed may even be the worst of the lot. "The love of money is the root of all evil," said the Apostle Paul, without even having seen casino capitalism in action. Greed is not good. It's one pole of a perennial choice that faces most people and tribes, organizations and nations. The choice is greed OR good.

This nation had eight years of an administration that exemplified, enabled and exhorted greed. The restorative after 9-11 was go shopping, the stimulus to a faltering economy was a check for people to go buy stuff they don't need. The way to scratch a collective itch for war was to conquer an oil-rich country. Now the United States has to go in a new direction, staggering toward good instead of greed. The incoming administration has to attempt to steer the new course. Meanwhile we all have to choose between greed and good in our personal lives and cope with the fallout of bad choices that were outside of our control. And the ghosts of dead Iraqi civilians, drowned people in New Orleans, and extinct species, the ghosts of dead hopes and lost homes and defeated dreams, watch us during the day and whisper in our uneasily sleeping ears at night.

No comments: