Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw |

Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw

Andy Stone
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Greed is in danger of getting a bad name.

Last week, a pretentious, self-important U.S. senator berated the CEO of AIG, the foundering insurance giant that’s everybody’s favorite punching bag of the moment.

“AIG stands for Arrogance, Incompetence and Greed!” thundered the senator. Actually, if he really wanted to know what stands for Arrogance, Incompetence and Greed, he should have spent a little more time staring into the mirror that morning.

But never mind that. My point is that lumping greed in with arrogance and incompetence is unfair to greed.

Arrogance and incompetence are character flaws. Greed is a basic part of the human condition. Perhaps not the best part, but an unavoidable part.

That which is inevitable cannot be immoral.

It has been said that we should think of greed the same way we think about gravity.

When you slip and fall, you don’t curse gravity. You regret your own careless clumsiness. Gravity is always there; ignore it and suffer the consequences.

Gravity may make you skin your knee, but it has its benefits. The existence of the universe, to name just one.

The same is true for greed. Greed is a basic motivating factor, the gasoline that fuels the engine at the heart of our capitalist system.

And that’s not a bad thing. Capitalism is like democracy: the worst possible system ” except for all the others (as various people are given credit for saying).

There’s another (not so famous) saying: The problem with communism is communism; the problem with capitalism is capitalists.

Communism is inherently hopelessly flawed, because it doesn’t take human nature into account. It doesn’t recognize the inevitability of greed.

Communism sounds great in theory. But in reality it doesn’t work. Twisted off course by greed (for wealth, for power), it turns inevitably into tyranny.

Capitalism, on the other hand, may sound seriously wrong in theory. But it works.

Or, to be more precise, it almost works.

Capitalism’s problems come when the greed of the capitalists runs rampant ” but instead of tyranny, we get piracy.

Indeed, yet another saying (attributed to various great robber barons) declares that “Piracy is capitalism as the Good Lord intended it to be ” without all the folderol.”

Tyranny is the death of liberty. Piracy is a nasty annoyance that can be kept in check.

Which brings us back to greed.

It does no good to insult greed, the way the blowhard senator did. That’s like trying to fly by insulting gravity.

Imagine NASA spending billions to assemble the world’s best insult mongers, vituperators and provocateurs in hope of launching a Mars mission that blasted off from Planet Earth and navigated through the solar system powered only by vicious insults against gravity.

Can’t you just imagine gravity cringing under the assault and letting that spaceship soar?

Spaceships have to accept gravity in all its mathematical certainty, to the last decimal point. Otherwise, someone’s going to get hurt.

As with gravity, so with greed.

Except, of course, that we can’t measure greed with mathematical precision. At least, not yet.

Perhaps we’re only waiting for our own Isaac Newton of greed, someone who can nail down the Laws of Greed with the same certainty and clarity that Sir Isaac applied to gravity.

In the history of the world, how many apples fell before Sir Isaac, the right genius, in the right place, at the right time, cried “Aha!” and began to formulate the mathematical laws that made the inevitable comprehensible?

Similarly, how many bubbles will have to inflate and burst, how many fortunes will have to be lost, how many economies will have to run aground before a genius of Newtonian stature cries “Aha!” and makes mathematical sense of greed?

Until then, we will have to stumble along in the dark, working as best we can with the crude tools at our disposal.

But work we must.

And here, I fear, is where government must come into play.

I know, I know. I have mentioned the ultimate evil, the “G word.” Some of you will, no doubt, have to spend a few moments calming down.

But government is what keeps piracy under control.

It has been noted that piracy flourishes when the world’s dominant naval power ” of whatever era ” becomes distracted, weakened.

Just as jackals skulk in the dark at the edge of the firelight, so pirates are kept at bay by the steely glint of real power. And when that light flickers and dims, they draw ever closer. Snarling.

Government repairs the roads and delivers the mail (and say what you will, having someone come to your house, pick up a letter and deliver it to any other house you choose, anywhere in this vast nation, in just a few days, for just a handful of pennies, is truly an amazing achievement).

And, as with these basic services, so too government keeps pirates at bay.

In that same way, we need to have government keep an eye on the piracy of greed.

Not because greed is bad, but because greed, like gravity, is always waiting for us to make a clumsy mistake.

And when we fool ourselves into believing that government is the problem ” that government is always and only the problem ” then we are walking a tightrope blindfolded. Tempting gravity.

I would never say we should trust government blindly.

After all, government of the people, by the people and for the people is, sadly, as stupid as the people.

I, for one, would not trust that AIG-berating senator to run the cash register at Burger Doodle.

No, we have to keep an eye on government, as if it were a dim-witted, sticky-fingered child we have to walk to the store and help count the change from a quarter after he buys a stick of gum for a nickel.

But still, the errands must be run. The pirates must be kept at bay.

And greed must be recognized as neither right nor wrong, but as inevitable. And as natural as gravity.

In Washington. Or in Aspen. Greed for money. Greed for power. Greed for love. All so inevitable. All so human.

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