December 11, 1987 (a Friday)

The point i$, ladie$ and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, i$ good. Greed i$ right, greed work$. Greed clarifie$, cut$ through, and capture$ the e$$ence of the evolutionary $pirit. Greed, in all of it$ form$; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge ha$ marked the upward $urge of mankind. And greed, you mark my word$, will not only $ave Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U$A. Thank you very much.

— “Gordon Gekko” [at the Teldar Paper stockholder’s meeting], Wall Street (1987), Oliver Stone, director; screenplay by Stanley Weiser

Zen stones

Detail from Gaki-Zoshi, the “Scroll of Hungry Ghosts”: Ghosts devouring dead bodies in a graveyard (late 12th century).

Detail from Gaki-Zoshi, the “Scroll of Hungry Ghosts”: Ghosts devouring dead bodies in a graveyard (late 12th century).

On this date, Wall Street, the film directed by Oliver Stone, was released in the United States. It immortalized the unforgettable Ivan Boesky, king of risk arbitrage whose short-lived Reagan-era reign ended in prison, as the barely fictionalized Gordon Gecko, author of that eternal 1980s battle cry of the MBAs, “Greed is good.”

The economic dogma of our time is a belief that business is and must be exclusively based on the supremacy of profit, a belief that a relentless focus on profit above all else is the one and only way of creating sustainable business success. It’s a narrow and crippling bit of economic doctrine that seems now to pervade nearly all quarters of the business world. It is reflected in Milton Friedman’s foundational assumption that shareholder value is a corporation’s only (or at least primary) responsibility. In a 1979 interview with a young Phil Donahue, Friedman said:

Well first of all, tell me: Is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed? What is greed? Of course, none of us are greedy, it’s only the other fellow who’s greedy. The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests. The great achievements of civilization have not come from government bureaus. Einstein didn’t construct his theory under order from a bureaucrat. Henry Ford didn’t revolutionize the automobile industry that way. In the only cases in which the masses have escaped from the kind of grinding poverty you’re talking about, the only cases in recorded history, are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade. If you want to know where the masses are worse off, worst off, it’s exactly in the kinds of societies that depart from that. So that the record of history is absolutely crystal clear, that there is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by the free-enterprise system. [emphasis added]

This American neoliberalism — guileless faith in markets and overweening hatred of government and public expenditure — still dominates the Republican Party today in the perpetual “crises” over debt ceilings, fiscal cliffs, and sequesters.

In an article in The American Prospect, Eric Alterman said that “Friedman mentioned during one of our conversations that he did not believe in public education, at all. I said I thought this was a bit hypocritical, since he had received one, and it had allowed him to grow up to be the most influential public intellectual in the country, if not the world. I forget what he said…He did not care a whit about fairness in the economy or the accumulation of wealth and power by the few over the many. Judging by the nature of his allies in South America, he couldn’t be bothered much about human rights, either.”

There is an implicit assumption by Friedman and mainstream economists that humans are, by nature, selfish and competitive. Psychologist Steve Taylor (and I) refute this:

Many economists and politicians believe that acquisitiveness – the impulse to buy and possess things – is natural to human beings. This seems to make sense in terms of Darwin’s theory of evolution: since natural resources are limited, human beings have to compete over them, and try to claim as large a part of them as possible.

One of the problems with this theory is that there is actually nothing “natural” about the desire to accumulate wealth. In fact, this desire would have been disastrous for earlier human beings. For the vast majority of our time on this planet, human beings have lived as hunter-gatherers – small tribes who would usually move to a different site every few months. As we can see from modern hunter-gatherers, this way of life has to be non-materialistic, because people can’t afford to be weighed down with unnecessary goods. Since they moved every few months, unnecessary goods would simply be a hindrance to them, making it more difficult for them to move.

Another theory is that the restlessness and constant wanting which fuels our materialism is a kind of evolutionary mechanism which keeps us in a state of alertness. (The psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has suggested this, for example.) Dissatisfaction keeps living beings on the look out for ways of improving their chances of survival; if they were satisfied they wouldn’t be alert, and other creatures would take the advantage.

But there is no evidence that other animals live in a state of restless dissatisfaction. On the contrary, many animals seem to lead very slow and static lives, content to remain within their niche and to follow their instinctive patterns of behavior. And if this is what drives our materialism, we would probably expect other animals to be acquisitive too. But again, there is no evidence that – apart from some food-hoarding for the winter months – other animals share our materialistic impulses. If it was necessary for living beings to be restless and constantly wanting then evolution would surely have ground to a halt millions of years ago.

And citing empirical evidence,the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History reports that:

Sharing food, caring for infants, and building social networks helped our ancestors meet the daily challenges of their environments.

(…)

Beginning 2.6–1.8 million years ago, some groups of early humans began collecting tools and food from a variety of places and bringing them to favored resting and eating spots. Sharing vital resources with other members of the group led to stronger social bonds and enhanced the group’s chances of survival.

(…)

Beginning 800,000 years ago… early humans gathered around campfires that they made and controlled. Why did they come together at these early hearths? Perhaps to socialize, to find comfort and warmth, to share food and information, and to find safety from predators.

(…)

[Sometime] 500,000–160,000 years ago… early humans had evolved much larger brains. Infants were born with small brains, enabling the head to pass through the birth canal. The brain continued to grow throughout a long childhood. During adolescence, youngsters continued to prepare for the challenges of adulthood.

Humans are unique among primates in having long, distinct periods of childhood and adolescence. These stages enable us to learn, play, socialize, and absorb important experiences prior to adulthood.

(…)

[About] 130,000 years ago… humans began interacting with social groups located far from their own… groups who lived 300 km (186 mi) apart were exchanging resources. Social networks continued to expand and become more complex. Today, people from around the globe rely on one another for information and goods.

In fact, humans are a classic example of a social species — as the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle famously wrote in Politics, “Man is by nature a social animal.” Part of our success as a species is due to the fact that prehistoric societies supported the elderly, sick, and poor among them, emotionally and physically. We ignore this fact of human nature at our peril.

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