The Greenback God

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“We are not hostile to [corporations]; we are merely determined that they shall be so handled as to subserve the public good. We draw the line against misconduct, not against wealth.” -Teddy Roosevelt

It seems like news of the recent American economic crisis and massive government bailout are currently pervading the news media. What has not necessarily made it into the mainstream media yet is the recent revelation that AIG, who just received a bailout totaling more than $85 billion, spent $440,000 on a corporate retreat to a very expensive St. Regis hotel and spa. Seems kind of crazy that a company that cannot afford to insure its customers and needs to rely on taxpayer money turns around and spends a portion of it (an amount of money far greater than the vast majority of Americans see in one year) on hot towels and cucumber slices.

We don’t really care whether this retreat was scheduled prior to the crisis; it could have been cancelled. We fully understand that when you’re a national lightning rod for controversy and scorn, you will be undergoing some stress, and a sauna and a massage might be just the thing. But it is clearly not what the country needs, and could easily be construed in the manner we here construe it: as an act of bad faith that makes a fool of themselves, the government, and the American people.

The bailout was clearly granted with the idea that the companies in question would use the money responsibly in a way that would some how ease our economy away from the brink. The aforementioned vacation, therefore, seems to be the most overt betrayal of a governmental act of good faith in recent memory. How could these people think that accepting the hard-earned money of the American people and spending it on leisure activities is honorable, just, or wise?

Pardon us. We forgot that these things don’t matter any more. We forgot that responsibility, obligation, and guilt were words that don’t carry much in public or private discourse – that American life is to be governed by acquisition and pleasure. Sure, we do good things for each other, we are capable of generosity of spirit, but by no means should such displays be interpreted as anything but an effort to bring one’s self pleasure. We forgot that anything even hinting at the true, deep value of community, family, religion is to be barred from public discourse. All that we can talk about is our individual freedom. Life is necessary, we suppose, but liberty is really just a means to the pursuit of happiness.

And this is not just a way of saying that, “gee, things used to be so much better.” In some ways, they were. Remember Titanic, the film in which we saw rich men scrambling into life rafts, shoving women and children aside? A full 67% of the men in First Class on that ship went down into the Atlantic with it; only 8% of the men in Second Class survived. 52% of all the children on board and 74% of the women survived. That’s not chance. That’s a conception of honor and duty.

Are we overstating the case? Perhaps, but we refuse to give up this line of critique completely. These bigger ideals, we feel, are ones that may appear in practice or are spoken of in theory but are rarely seen in both forms as once. American capitalism has sustained our way of life for decades, and has been a force for much good (and, to be sure, ill) in the world; middle class civil society is the best of which we can conceive, without the excesses of the rich and the want of the poor, and capitalism is largely responsible for making it possible.

But there is an ethos that business invites and is hard, though necessary, to resist. It is acquisitiveness writ large, a form of life in which making the deal is what matters and morals be damned. “Always be closing,” as David Mamet wrote. And what do we get? Deceit, guile, and dishonor. We end up with men and women like those that run AIG or Enron.

The question we must ask ourselves is whether morally decrepit CEOs and other corporate managers are self-made beasts or whether our economic and employment systems, which are built around an unrelenting pursuit of personal gratification, are the lightning-bolt that breathes life into these greedy monsters. We must keep in mind that we endorse a system in which corporate employees give all but life and limb to work eighty or more hours a week. Not that we are crying over their work-loads, but it is easy to see that the type of men and women who are quick to sacrifice their families, religions, and other edifying pursuits to the greenback god imprinted with a dead president will quickly forget what “good” means. Like the famous Sophist Callicles, they may deny its existence altogether.

In the end, we have to consider the loss. We leave you with this account, from a recent book on the Harvard Business School, about the “Goldman Sachs executive who came to talk about leadership and values…I just remembered this look of total defeat on his face when he said how he had four ex-wives.”