December 13, 2017

What is Greed?

Whether you are liberal, conservative, libertarian, or none of the above, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for the “Occupiers.” Even if do not agree with them on every issue, there is something very American about a grassroots movement to “fight the man” and protest the existing order. After all, that is how the united States of America were born. As with the Tea Party, it is refreshing to see a group of Americans objecting to something about the sad state of our republic, rather than indifferently accepting each new depridation like sheep awaiting the slaughter.

It is in this spirit that I take issue with one of the central themes of the OWS movement: the fight against “greed.” Here is one area where I believe that the Occupiers are chasing a phantom. Greed is the government’s favorite hobgoblin. Any politician with a bad record, skeleton’s in his closet, or some other threat to his phoney baloney job can invoke this loosely defined vice and count on some level of support in his time of need (for votes). But what is greed and how can one fight it?

That is two questions and one cannot answer the second before resolving the first. I believe that if you asked any 10 people at random for their definition of greed, you would get 10 different answers. The first answer is usually “a desire to have more than one needs.” However, this doesn’t hold up very well. It is obvious that all people desire more than they need. Without accumulating more wealth than what is minimally needed for survival, no human being can read or write a book, create a work of art, or perform an act of charity. In fact, none of what we commonly call “culture” would be possible if human beings did not accumulate the excess wealth that affords them the leisure time to create art, literature, charitable organizations, or the other blessings of society.

To this objection, proponents of the “more than one needs” definition will immediately clarify. “No, I meant desiring far more than one needs.” This clarification is just as problematic. How much is too much? Who sets the limit? At what point has one changed from being a hard worker to being “greedy?” Does that limit change from person to person? Is there a greed-o-meter out there that can set a dollar amount?

If one accepts this definition of greed, the solution to the problem is even murkier than the definition itself. Exactly what is to be done about the fact that “the 1% cares only about profits and not about the  rest of society?” Should businesses take specific actions to cut their profits? What are those actions? The great majority of all new businesses fail within their first year, even when their sole motivation is profit. How is an entrepreneur to know for sure that his business will succeed at all, much less make “excessive” profits? What action can he take to counteract this? Should he cease to innovate, improve efficiencies, lower costs for consumers, improve the quality and features  of his products, or employ people? These are the things that entrepreneurs do to make profits. Specifically which one is “bad” for the 99%?

To be fair, many of the comments on the OWS Demands page are more specific. As I’ve said before, they are definitely in the ball park when they finger the financial sector. However, comments like this one indicate that they haven’t yet found their seats:

“The moneyed elite of our society has changed from being apart of the team that built an economy that raised the lives of all men with ample profits for themselves to a Gambler, who only wants to keep score through the accumulation of money, ever screaming for more profits for themselves at the expense of the people they pretend to serve.”

This is a popular theme and not just among OWS supporters. The accusation that economic players in the financial sector took excessive risks that harmed people other than themselves is almost universally accepted, even by conservatives. Remember George W. Bush’s famous pronouncement, “Wall Street got drunk.”

However, the statement that the “gamblers” make “profits for themselves at the expense of the people they pretend to serve” just doesn’t compute. Wall Street did take excessive risks during the boom that predeceded the bust. They did indeed take those risks in the hope of making greater profits. However, those profits would not have been made at the expense of the people they serve. The people they serve would have made those profits, too, on their own money. They voluntarily gave their money to the financial sector in the hopes that the “gamblers” would win them a return on their investment. Had all gone well, the 99% would have realized a huge return. It is fashionable to claim that financiers make money for producing nothing, but this isn’t true. They make money from their ability to make sound investments and the willingness of other people to pay them to do if for them.

So what can be done about this problem? How do politicians or their constituents, who know nothing about investing (which is the whole reason that they give their money to financiers in the first place), make rules for how much risk investors are allowed to take? Do those rules apply to their own investments? Without some risk, there are no new businesses, no new jobs, no economic growth. How much risk is too much and who decides? The investors themselves or people who know nothing about investing? If investors are not allowed to take whatever risks they deem prudent and the result is that the economy in America dies, will the 99% take responsibility for that? We know that the politicians won’t.

All of these seemingly insoluble dilemmas spring from the initial premise about greed. As long as greed is defined in terms of how much wealth one desires to accumulate, the conclusions that one draws from that premise will always be absurd. The amount of wealth one accumulates or desires to accumulate is immaterial. Instead, it is the means by which one wishes to acquire it that is vital.

If you change your definition of greed from “desiring more than one needs” to “desiring more than one has earned,” then all of the contradictions and ambiguities disappear. Of course, we are immediately begging the question of how to define “earned,” but that is a simple matter. One has earned wealth if one has acquired it without initiating the use of force against anyone else. Under this definition, money given to someone as a charitable contribution qualifies as earned just as profits made from selling products do. In this scenario, the amount of wealth one is able to accumulate has a natural limit – the amount that others are willing to pay for one’s goods or services. This eliminates those troublesome questions about how much is too much in terms of profit.

To be greedy, then, is not the desire to accumulate more wealth than one needs, but the desire to accumulate more than others are willing to pay you for your services. For in order to do that, you must forcibly take the money that they would not willingly give. There is only one institution in all of society that can facilitate this legally: government.

Thus, if Person A accumulates $1 million by selling 100,000 units of his product at $10 per unit, he is not being greedy. He has made an equitable exchange with his fellow human beings: $1 million in products for $1 million in money. In this scenario, he and the 99% are square. Each has benefitted equally from the exchange. We know that he has earned his $1 million because the consumers set the price of his products with their voluntary decision to buy.

Now consider Person B, who wishes to accumulate that same $1 million through government employment, subsidies or privileges. No one voluntarily buys his product. The fact that the government has to either subsidize Person B or protect him from competition means that he is trying to sell something that people would not otherwise buy at his asking price. At best, Person B has sold something at a higher price than people are willing to pay. At worst he has sold something that his fellow humans don’t want at all, but are forced to purchase by the government.

Either way, Person B is greedy – he wishes to accumulate wealth beyond what people are willing to pay him voluntarily. In other words, he is willing to commit armed theft against his neighbors. As you can see, Person B may be far more greedy in his desire for even $50,000 than Person A is in his desire for $100 million, if Person B plans to obtain it by force and Person A means to obtain it through voluntary exchange.

OWS is right to want to stamp out greed, but they aren’t defining it correctly. Since Woodrow Wilson, progressives have been making the same fundamental error in failing to distinguish between legitimately acquired wealth and wealth acquired through government force. It is the latter that OWS should look to stamp out, rather than indiscriminately condemning anyone who becomes wealthy. The most effective way to fight greed by its true definition is to take the Occupation to Washington, D.C., where the power that the greedy utilize resides.

Imagine a world in which every individual has an equal chance to be a millionaire, but only if he offers his fellow individuals $1 million in benefits, with the 99% deciding for themselves how much they are willing to pay. That is a world without greed. That is what we used to call “freedom.”

>So Many Rights…

>When looking for wisdom in the wilds of western New York, one might be surprised how often it can be found on the airwaves, listening to the legendary hockey announcer, Rick Jeanerette. Over the years, Buffalo Sabres fans have cheered while Jeanerette has boisterously called their teams triumphs with jingles like “Wowee Housley,” “This building is bedlam!” and the immortal “La-la-la-la Fontaine!” One night, after calling the action during a particularly one-sided fight, Jeanerette dryly remarked of the loser,

“He got hit with so many rights he was begging for a left.”

How prophetic.

After eight years of Republican rule (the barely noticeable change in power in Congress being largely irrelevant), most Americans have been reduced to the same circumstances. They may not love what the Democrats have to offer if they ever really take a moment to think about it, but as long as it’s not more of George Bush’s Republicans, they’ll take it. Like the hapless forward in that forgotten hockey brawl, they too have been hit with so many rights that they are begging for a left.

Left is just what they are going to get, and it’s going to hurt just as much – maybe more.
I don’t think that I’m alone in being astonished at how unabashedly socialist the rhetoric was during the Democratic presidential primary debates earlier this year. While Bill Clinton positioned himself as relatively centrist – sometimes almost Republican – while seeking to succeed what was perceived as relatively successful Republican administrations of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the shift is quite startling now that today’s Democrats smell the blood of a Republican administration with approval ratings down around parking level 3. During the primary season, Democrats have suggested nationalizing the oil industry, nationalizing the healthcare system, and have even promised to “end poverty in one generation.”

Now that the primaries are over and Barack Obama has emerged as the party’s presidential candidate, one would expect that the rhetoric might ease a bit. Normally, candidates appeal more directly to the base during primary contests, but must play to independents and even voters of the opposing party when campaigning for the general election. In a way, Obama’s rhetoric is less inflammatory. However, having taken the time to sit down and listen to his speech in Berlin on July 24, I wasn’t, annoyed, disgusted, or outraged. I was terrified. I was terrified at the things that a man that is presently being cheered wildly by crowds of tens of thousands of Americans at a time was saying. Now, granted, he was speaking to the Germans, who practically invented socialism (no offense, monsieurs). However, the words he spoke were undoubtedly HIS words. Let’s take a close look at some of them.

““…that Europeans today are bearing new burdens and taking more responsibility in critical parts of the world, and that just as American bases built in the last century still help to defend the security of this continent, so does our country still sacrifice greatly for freedom around the globe.”

Well, there is a mouthful. It seems that Europeans now have responsibility for critical parts of the world, which I assume are outside of Europe. They are bearing burdens. Somehow, both of these things seem good to Mr. Obama. Of course, Americans are all too aware of the SACRIFICE they are making. Whether or not that sacrifice is really for “freedom” is very open to debate.

A few moments later, Mr. Obama tells the Germans that “the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together.” Not only that, but he warns that “A change of leadership in Washington will not lift this burden. In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more, not less.”

Would it be paranoid to suggest that someone wants us to get used to the idea of “burdens?” Of course, the word “sacrifice” has already appeared one time. It will not be the last.

““True partnership and true progress requires constant work and sustained sacrifice. They require sharing the burdens of development and diplomacy, of peace and progress, they require allies that will listen to each other, learn from each other, and most of all, trust each other.”

Now, someone will be bearing burdens AND sacrificing. Mr. Obama goes on to say, ““Now is the time to join together, through constant cooperation and strong institutions and shared sacrifice, and a global commitment to progress to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Ok, Ok, I get it. Burden and sacrifice. Mr. Obama obviously wants us to get used to the idea. Of course, the best way to do that is to say the words over and over again. Once people are used to hearing the words, the ideas behind them are soon to follow. Mr. Obama’s intentions seem quite clear. In HIS 21st century, there are burdens to bear and sacrifices to be made.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines sacrifice as “destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else.” I think that it is safe to say that Mr. Obama is not talking here about destroying anything (although that is also part of his 21st century). No, the “sacrifice” that Mr. Obama refers to is definitely more in the “surrender” category, namely more of the fruits of your labor. However, the definition of sacrifice says that the surrender is made “for the sake of something else.” What does Mr. Obama have in mind?

Near the end of the speech, Mr. Obama tells us.

“This is our moment, this is our time. I know my country has not been perfect itself. At times, we struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality of all people.”

Here we finally have it, the age old socialist oxymoron, liberty and equality. Certainly, those producing more than they consume will have to sacrifice quite a bit if equality is to be achieved with all of those consuming more than they produce, not to mention those producing nothing at all (including Mr. Obama – although I suspect he will end up in the “more equal than others” category). However, it need not be pointed out that government cannot try to achieve equality and protect liberty at the same time. Liberty recognizes equal rights, but it NEVER results in equality. That’s one of the great things about liberty.

As the Democrats often claim to be “the party of Jefferson,” I will remind Mr. Obama of the words of his party’s patron,

“…that our wish, as well as theirs, is, that the public efforts may be directed honestly to the public good, that peace be cultivated, civil and religious liberty unassailed, law and order preserved; equality of rights maintained, and that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry, or that of his fathers.”[1]

For those who might not be getting the point, or think that it will be somehow noble or civic-minded to “bear the burdens” of Mr. Obama’s quest for equality, allow me to point out Merriam-Webster’s definition of “burden.”

“the bearing of a load —usually used in the phrase beast of burden.”

How does it sound now?

I do have a question for Barack Obama. It is this: What sacrifices will you make for liberty and equality in the 21st century, Mr. Obama? What burdens will YOU and YOUR family bear?
That’s what I thought.

I know those rights have hurt over the last eight years, Mr. and Mrs. American, but watch out for that left. It may be the knockout blow.

Tom Mullen

[1] Jefferson, Thomas 2nd Inaugural Address (1805)

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The Nazis: Right Wing Extremists or National Socialists?

It has become conventional wisdom to characterize Nazi Germany as an extreme “right wing” or “conservative” reaction against communism. There is no doubt that Hitler hated communism, which he saw as a Jewish conspiracy. Hitler blamed the Reichstag fire, which most historians suspect him of orchestrating himself, on Jewish communists. Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), contains page after page of Hitler railing against the lies and the evils of communism. Does that make Hitler a “right wing conservative?” If by “right wing conservative,” we mean that he was an advocate of free markets, property rights, low taxes, and low regulation, then definitely he was not. The name “National Socialist” should be some indication of what Hitler’s economic policies were, and the plain facts of history bear that name out. Nevertheless, the Nazis are almost universally regarded as “right wing conservative extremism,” a misconception with more ominous ramifications than are obvious at first glance.

Investigation and analysis are not really needed to determine whether Nazi Germany operated under a capitalist, free market system or a socialist one. The economy was centrally planned, with wage and price controls imposed by the Goering, under the threat of concentration camp imprisonment.[1] Hitler sought foreign investment in manufacturing the Volkswagen, but because he sought companies that would not seek to make profits on the “people’s products,” American manufacturers GM and Ford dropped out of the project.[2]

When the Nazi’s came to power, unemployment was nearly 30%.[3] One of Hitler’s stated goals was to eliminate unemployment by 1939, a goal he proclaimed he met when the official unemployment rate fell under 1% that year. However, those statistics are somewhat deceiving when you consider that the Nazi’s forced women and Jews to quit their jobs and were subsequently not counted as unemployed, while unemployed German men replaced them.[4] The balance of the unemployed were absorbed into massive new government works projects to build steel plants, rubber factories, and other capital goods projects, funded by inflating the German currency that was now off the gold standard.[5]

The central planning and control did not stop at the macro level, but reached down into the life of each individual German. The right to quit your job was abolished in 1935, with consent from your previous employer required to accept another job. Trade unions were abolished, and investment was heavily regulated to serve the needs of the state rather than to encourage profit. Heavy taxes on profits made private ownership of companies virtually impossible. While the largest companies were not taxed on profits, they were so heavily controlled that they were privately-owned in name only.[6]

While the unemployment rate was made to look low by simply excluding the people that didn’t have jobs, nothing about the Nazi economy was truly sustainable. You can manipulate statistics for a while, but sooner or later reality will prevail. However, like the languishing American economy (itself suffering from the effects of the socialist New Deal), the German economy found temporary new life in building its war machine. The last of the recognized unemployed were now put to work, with the printing press of Germany’s central bank ready to provide whatever liquidity was needed. The inevitable consequences of inflating the currency were postponed once the war began, as Germany merely plundered the gold to back at least a portion of this new money from the countries they conquered.

In The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek addressed the very issue of whether the Nazis were a right wing or left wing movement. His thesis was that not only were the National Socialists every bit as socialist as their name, but that they were the natural result of socialism itself. Hayek warned his present-day England that they were traveling down the same “road to serfdom” that Germany had traveled decades before, and that he feared that socialism in England would lead to the same horrors there that it had lead to in Germany – that socialism MUST lead to wherever it is practiced.[7]

So, in terms of economic policy, the Nazis were every bit the “National Socialists” that their name suggested. However, they were also militaristic. Hitler launched aggressive, unprovoked wars against Czechoslovakia and Poland. Doesn’t that make him a “right wing conservative?”

Again, it is not “conservative” or “right wing” by any definition that we have ever used here in America until very recently. As Ron Paul pointed out time and again in his presidential campaign, the conservative position has always been anti-war and non-interventionist. Prior to the “neo-conservative” Republicans, the Republican Party always ran on an anti-war platform. It was a Democratic President that took us into every conflict we fought in the 20th century: Woodrow Wilson in WWI, Franklin Roosevelt in WWII[8], Truman in Korea, Johnson in Viet Nam.[9] Conversely, it was conservative, right wing Republicans that opposed each of these wars. “Mr. Conservative” Robert Taft actually opposed the U.S. joining NATO. Even the “right wing extremist” Barry Goldwater ran in 1964 on ending U.S. involvement in Viet Nam. Despite the Democrats’ success in characterizing Goldwater as a “nuke the commies” nutcase, the plain facts are that Goldwater campaigned against the war in Viet Nam and Johnson campaigned for it.

Nazi Germany was arguably the most horrible totalitarian society in history. By characterizing the Nazis as “right wing,” socialists proceed to make the argument that “conservative, right wing” philosophy – i.e. individual liberty, free markets, low taxes, less regulation – spawns a brutal totalitarianism when taken to the extreme. Therefore, any society built upon these principles has to be carefully guarded and imbued with the virtues of socialism to protect against the horrors of another Nazi Germany. In other words, too much freedom leads to totalitarianism, while government control protects us against it. To borrow my favorite line from Ron Paul’s Revolution, “If you think this sounds fishy, then you understand it just fine.”[10]

Welfare and warfare have always gone hand in hand in political ideology. Wherever you have found one, you have usually found the other. We have lost sight of the fact that the two are not merely related, they are actually siblings, or at least first cousins. Welfare is the use of government force to loot individuals and redistribute their wealth. Warfare is the use of government force to loot foreign nations (and their individuals) and redistribute their wealth. They are really one and the same ideology. Both are the antithesis of individual liberty. The only question one must ask in determining what is “right wing conservatism” and what is not is this: Does this policy support individuals dealing with each other by mutual, voluntary consent, or is the initiation of force involved? If the answer is mutual, voluntary consent, the policy is “right wing conservative.” If the answer is the initiation of force, it isn’t.

Ron Paul has been called by some a “right wing extremist.” He is. Ron Paul rejects the initiation of force without compromise or moderation. He is truly the last “right wing conservative” in American politics. This is not an encouraging sign. Already, the terms are being redefined once again.[11] A recent news story on the presidential election characterized Barack Obama’s recent support of the changes to FISA as a move “toward the center,” as was his support of AIPAC and strong rhetoric regarding defense of Israel. It is fair to say that economically, Obama is as far left as we have seen in a presidential candidate in decades. John McCain is considered “conservative” because of his strong support for the war and his support for government encroachment on civil liberties in the name of “security” against terrorism. Neither Obama nor McCain question the need for Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, or Welfare. Property rights and free markets are completely off the table. Where are the right wing conservatives?

I wrote at the beginning of this article that the misconception of the Nazis as an extreme right wing, conservative movement had ominous ramifications. Let us look back at history in Germany and speculate for a moment about our own future. Before the Nazis came to power, there was a socialist government in place that is best known for the most famous currency destruction in history. In the last days of the Weimar Republic, pictures of citizens carrying the near worthless currency to the supermarket in wheelbarrows illustrated the economic state of the nation. It was this crisis that allowed the Nazis to come to power.

We now have a nation that is thoroughly fed up with the Republican administration of the past eight years. The Republicans lost Congress in the previous mid-term election. Obama has a double-digit lead over John McCain. The public has become confused into thinking that the debate is between “right” and “left,” when in fact there is no “right” in this debate. Why is this ominous?

Let us suppose that Obama wins a landslide victory. It will be hailed as a mandate from the people for all of his policies. While Obama is still officially against the Iraq War, he is not against the rest of the American Empire. So, financially speaking, Obama may cut defense spending by about $150 billion dollars. That would not erase the federal deficit. In fact, the federal government currently spends more on providing the poor and elderly with healthcare than it does on its entire defense budget, and Obama wants to cover EVERYBODY. His positions on other forms of welfare, both direct wealth redistribution and the more covert brand via government intervention in the marketplace, are for much, much more.

America already has a crisis on its hands due to decades of inflating its currency. By comparing its $1.5 trillion entitlement spending to its $650 billion defense spending, it becomes obvious that a 20% decrease in defense spending combined with even a 10% increase in entitlement spending is going to ADD to the deficits, not decrease them. Such an entitlement increase may actually be very conservative when converting some of Obama’s rhetoric to U.S. dollars. Imagine a U.S. in much worse economic crisis four years from now, with inflation that makes today’s problem look mild, and with a citizenry that now blames “the liberal left” for everything. Where will they turn?

An Obama presidency accompanied by a Democratic House and Senate could accelerate an economic cataclysm that, fairly stated, is coming, no matter which party is in power. However, with most Americans considering the neo-con Republicans as the “right wing,” it will be this brand of Republican that America turns to four years from now. With economic decline accelerating, the so-called “neo-cons” could be swept into power in four years with a stronger mandate than the Democrats had in this election. This is a party that has demonstrated its unrestrained desire for war at any cost, its utter disregard for individual liberty, its record-setting government spending, its policy of spying on its citizens, and its policy of unwarranted arrest, imprisonment, and torture. At what time in history have we seen such a unanimous mandate from the people for a political party like this? Do we really think that it couldn’t happen here?

Tom Mullen

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_Germany#Economy
[2] http://en.citizendium.org/wiki/Adolf_Hitler
[3] http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/nazis_and_the_german_economy.htm
[4] http://www.search.com/reference/Nazi_Germany#Economic_policy
[5] http://www.search.com/reference/Nazi_Germany#Economic_policy
[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_Germany#Economy
[7] F.A. Hayek The Road to Serfdom (rather than cite specific passages, the reader is encourage to read the entire book, as this topic is its central thesis
[8] It is only fair to point out that after the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR had unanimous support for a declaration of war on Japan. However, if you examine FDR’s foreign policy before the attack, which many historians regard as having provoked Japan unnecessarily, you will find that it was “conservatives” that were opposed to it.
[9] While the United States had “advisors” in Viet Nam as early as the Eisenhower administration, Viet Nam did not become anywhere near a full scale war until Johnson’s first full term –after the 1964 election. Kennedy has planned to get the U.S. out of Viet Nam while the commitment was still minimal enough to do so.
[10] Ron Paul The Revolution: A Manifesto pg. 141
[11] Remember that the term “liberal” was used 100 years ago to describe what later became the “conservative” position of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In 2008, neither “conservative” nor “liberal” mean what they have in the past.

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