October 2, 2008

The Banality of Greed

I recently read an atrocious little volume called Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo. It reminded me of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, another novel I hate. At the same time I was reading Cosmopolis, I was reading Wall Street Versus America, Gary Weiss's book on Wall Street greed, corruption, and incompetence. And then, shoes started dropping on Wall Street. Ah, synchronicity . . .

There's a lot of anger associated with all the bank and brokerage failures, even before the government started dumping chunks of the treasury into these private clusterfucks. Apropos DeLillo and Wolfe, we imagine the villains to be the so-called "masters of the universe" (a coinage of Wolfe's from BotV) that run Wall Street. While the stink of deep soul corruption hangs like a dank fog over the centers of money and power, the roots of the greed that bore this toxic fruit are sunk deep into the everyday soil that we ourselves tread. Contrary to the sexy elitist makeover that DeLillo and Wolfe (among many, many others) foist upon it, greed is, in fact, banal & pervasive.

A few years back, there was an exodus of salesman from my workplace into the mortgage industry. It was where the money was. As far as I know, it was all kinds of high-risk paper: re-fi, no money down mortgages, etc. A few of them came back because they weren't comfortable with the business. The idea was to pistol whip as much of this paper through as possible, any way possible. As an agent, you are not allowed to make judgements concerning a customer's ability to pay. Now, that sounds reasonable, except sometimes the customer just doesn't know what the hell is going on. You can sit there knowing damn well the customer isn't going to be able to make the payments, but as long as your bosses keep stamping it and sending it up one more level . . . well, not your problem. It's your job to pump paper into the pipeline, it's someone else's job to kick it back out. The more paper you pump, the better off you are.

This isn't Glengarry Glen Ross stuff here, this is just a bunch of kids trying to get themselves enough extra cash to get a new car, or a big screen TV. They want to impress their bosses, they want to make a reputation, so racking up big numbers is the way to do that. To get the numbers, you push limits as far as possible. A client may have put down that he makes $50,000 a year as a Burger King shift manager, but is it the agent's job to question that? Well, no, however unlikely, it is possible. Or there's that guy with his own "lawn service" who makes $70,000 - once again, it is possible, even if that broke-down 10 year old F-150 with a push mower and a couple weedeaters in back says otherwise. It's not the agent's job to be detective. Thought about a transaction can never be "is this the right thing to do, for the client and for the company?"; rather, all attention has to be focused into "what is the best way to maximize this deal for me?". The real face of the mortgage crisis isn't Cosmopolis's Eric Packer betting huge mountains of cash against the rise of the yen, it's a kid working far too many hours, going out and getting drunk after work, coming in again with just a couple hours of sleep, and having to borrow $10 to eat lunch the day before payday. The face of the mortgage crisis isn't one of Wolfe's "masters of the universe", it's a harried father trying to push a little extra paper so he can afford a babysitter and a rare night out for his wife on payday. This isn't the outscale greed that splices itself to hubris, this is the greed that puts the simple desire for a little self-gratification above everything else.

Of course, the outscale greed and hubris of Wall Street "power brokers" is involved in this as well: the actual crash is linked largely to a crisis with derivatives, bizarre creations whose only function appears to be generating cash with no extra collateral. And, as much as we feel for the homeowners who were duped into these shitty loans, as a certain point they have to be held responsible for their own decisions (it's rare that a prospective mortgage client actually gets lied to - they just don't get the full truth unless they ask). Even here, though, the banality of greed permeates: the Wall Street guys creating "financial products" were just doing their jobs, like the mortgage guys whipping bad paper at the wall to see what sticks. The homeowners jumping into risky mortgages with one eye open and their noses plugged were just grasping for what has been defined as the American Dream. Broken down to an individual level, greed doesn't seem much different than the inability to avoid that bag of chips in the vending machine when you have change in your pocket.

Wolfe and DeLillo want to make Greek tragedy out of greed. In so doing, they glorify greed even if, as in Greek tragedy, the greedy hero gets it in the end. Ultimately, DeLillo wants us to admire Eric Packer, even if we don't necessarily love him. The implication is clear: greed is something grand and desirable. They are wrong: greed is banal, pervasive, and menial. And it is destroying our culture.


Anonymous said...

"And it [greed] is destroying our culture."

So, do you think greed is more of a problem for culture now because of our present cultural structure or because greed, itself, is more prevalent or is qualitatively worse than previously? Or do you think greed has always and continues to destroy culture?

Bill Zink said...

Actually, that was a stupid throw-away line that I should have edited out. The blog was about the nature of greed, not about the effect of greed on our (American) culture.

Greed seems to me to be neither more prevalent or qualitatively worse than previously. And it wasn't always destructive, though the more we progress as a society the more destructive it becomes.

I think greed, like many destructive human impulses, has its root in mechanisms that are responsible for the survival (and perhaps even ascendancy) of the human race. Greed is (should be!) a vestigial impulse, at least in the general sense. The acquisitive impulse has run into a closed system, and therefore all acquisition is at the expense of others in the system.

Greed is natural, part of human nature. But evolution has ended, thanks to (among other things) collective health care and compassion that protects those whom nature would destroy. Now, natural impulses conflict with a society built by humans.

I have always thought that self awareness and intellectual capacity comprised the apple in the garden of Eden (a very common concept, actually). "God" programmed us for a life of instinct, but we evolved beyond instinct. And now those instincts conflict with and poison the structures we build. In order to continue to survive, we must erase the past . . . the horse is out of the barn, there's no turning back.

Well, that's a rambling impressionistic answer to your question, and maybe not even an answer I would stand behind with more thought. Thanks for reading my skree.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your general assessment of greed as a component of human nature. However, once again, one line in particular caught my attention: "And it [greed] wasn't always destructive, though the more we progress as a society the more destructive it becomes."

How has greed become "more destructive?" I'm inclined to think the increase in things to desire combined with the increase in the means by which these things can be obtained has resulted in greed being potentially less destructive in contemporary, affluent culture.

In a primitive or desperate situation, greed will likely manifest as the rape of necessities (food, water, shelter) or even human beings by means of force. In modern, affluent culture money is the most likely object of greed. The existence of lotteries, adjustable-rate mortgages, the stock market, white-collar crime, electronic crime, etc allow for the satiation of greed without violence and often without a socially-recognized crime even being committed. Not that losing one's paycheck in a casino or one's savings to predatory-lending is a desired outcome; but, it seems preferable to being hit in the head with a club and having your wife dragged off or being killed over a box of UN food-aid. I'd argue progress applies even to the nasty aspects of culture.

p.s. Do you really believe evolution has ended? I'd love to see a blog on that.

Bill Zink said...

I think that the increase in objects of desire plus the increase in means to obtain these objects creates a dangerous ever-expanding feedback loop, in which acquisition becomes the goal of life, crowding out other goals, such as improving the social system (in general, not any government, religion, or institution specifically). Now, I can see how acquisition could be considered a mere game no more dangerous than following your favorite baseball team . . . but, unfortunately, greed spills over into the social dynamic with sometimes disastrous results.

From your perspective, it could be argued that the suffering greed causes is minor. I would not agree with that idea. I believe that greed exacerbates poverty (I would not, like some people, say that greed causes poverty), and that greed skews a social system that is meant to serve humanistic goals. When greed is the root motivation of action, then it is greed that is being served by that system. We need more humanistic goals for our systems. I have no problem with greed and acquisition, as long as it's a weekend hobby, not the reason for living.

By the way, in the quote you pull out of my comment, I think "progress" should be replaced with "change". That goes back to my ideas about evolution being at an end, at least in the linear Darwinian sense. Of course the world still "evolves" in a wider sense, but the ideas of natural selection and linear progression seem to me to be at an end. Things change - things will always change, and usually a lot faster than we realize. The difference now is that the primary changes are social and technical rather than biological. I guess that could still be seen as evolution, but I don't like the word evolution because of the linear implications of Darwinism.

Anyway, my notions of evolution are kinda half-assed ("as if your notions of greed aren't?"), so I'll have to muse upon the topic more before I write about it.

Anonymous said...

If "change" results in greed being more destructive and the number of things to desire and the means of acquiring them increasing also results in greed being more destructive is greed more destructive if the situation changes such that there are fewer things to desire and/or fewer means of acquiring them?

Bill Zink said...

Let me start by restating something I said earlier: while I think it's true that greed has its root in human nature, greed itself is a neurotic outgrowth of the self-preservation instinct . . . so, it has its roots in "human nature", and is natural to the degree that neurosis is natural to humans. The "change" we talk about may be the trigger for neuroses - or, humanity's inability to cope change, more accurately.

As such, there is no direct relationship between greed and economics, since greed is not a rational (or even consistent) response to scarcity or affluence. So I guess I'm not standing behind that cool "feedback loop" idea I had the other day.

I feel you dragging me toward a discussion of capitalism. If so, we'll have to have it in a different context: greed and capitalism have nothing directly to do with each other.

Bill Zink said...

By the way, this is good stuff. I appreciate your input. You should use a name to identify yourself.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to be elusive. I didn't realize I could comment with a mere name and without establishing a blogging account. Henceforth, I will be "bzg" (bill zink's gadfly). It's encouraging to hear that you don't conflate greed and capitalism. I suspected you might be a reluctant socialist.

Nonetheless, I wasn't trying to drag you toward a discussion of capitalism.

Bill Zink said...

Yes, I think "reluctant socialist" pretty much hits it on the head. I recently picked up the Norton anthology of Marx & Engels, & I'm going to address Marxism in a more thorough way than I have in the past. That, & Alain Badiou. That should tie me up for a few years.

Welcome, bzg.

Anonymous said...

Badiou is interesting to me in the way he intersects (often, in spite of himself (i presume)) with Husserl. I'm toying with the result of marrying Badiou's description of "truth," i.e, an event that upsets the existing order and then vanishes yet lingers, with Husserl's assertion that: "here [within myself] alone is perception the medium." In this scenario, I posit that "perception" is the void inside the brackets and "soul" is the void outside the brackets; assuming the context of Cantor's set theory. What do you think?

Bill Zink said...

Sounds interesting, but I'm not in a position to comment, being roughly 26 years gone from Husserl. I've taken a short spin through Badiou's Ethics, so now I have to figure out "event" for it to really make sense for me. To that end, I've picked up Being and Event, which I haven't cracked open yet (on a Faulkner jag . . . long story). Maybe you post somewhere as you're working through that. If you don't post anywhere else, consider yourself officially invited to post it here.

Being of essentially postmodernist persuasion, Badiou potentially offers a nice trapdoor to the endless loop of games.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like we're working on the same reading list. I recently read both "As I Lay Dying" and "Ethics." Don't take me at my word re: Badiou or anything else. I'm just fumbling in the dark, myself.

I don't blog anywhere. I leave random posts in various places but nowhere often enough to become a regular. I'm averse to going anywhere where everybody knows my name even it's an alias. However, I appreciate your offer and might just take you up on it if the spirit moves me.

In the meantime, I'll keep tabs on your little corner of the www and try to live up to my moniker.