Greed, for lack of a better word, is good," says multi-millionaire baron Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street. "Greed works," he tells cheering investors. But throughout the rest of the movie we see that Gecko's love of money works to his own downfall. He's willing to do almost anything for more, even break the law, and his sin finds him out.
"How much is enough?" asks his repentant protégé at one point. "How many yachts can you water-ski behind?" The answer could come straight out of Ecclesiastes: "Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income." Gecko adores money above all else, and his appetite for his great love can never be satiated.
But as insightful as the movie is, it's also dangerous. It's far too easy for those of us who aren't rich to walk away from Wall Street saying, "Glad I'm not like him." We may not realize it, but we are like him. There's a little bit of Gordon Gecko in all of us, and that bit is never on display more than around election time. "You shall not covet," the Bible commands, but we do, and politicians know it. They regularly promise to give gobs of money to special middle-class constituencies, at the expense of everyone else.
Most people would think that if any presidential candidate is pandering to money-love, it's George W. Bush, with his tax-cut proposal. But cutting taxes merely leaves money in the hands of those who earn it: They may act selfishly with it, or they may not. Other candidates want to take money from people and give it to those to whom it doesn't belong.
Al Gore's speech to the Democratic National Convention was a laundry list of proposals united by one basic theme: I'm going to give you average Americans lots of stuff, and I'm going to make those big bad rich people pay for it. "Envy is excellent; envy works," the Gecko-like vice president seemed on the verge of saying. It's an ugly message, but also a very powerful one. Don't be surprised if it wins the election for Mr. Gore.
Two other candidates, the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan and the Green Party's Ralph Nader, play to the same sentiment, albeit in a little more subtle guise. Their bogeyman: international trade. Vote for us, American worker, and we'll enact tariffs to make sure your customers have to pay you more for your products.
That's not how they phrase it, but it may as well be. Tariffs aren't free. They're great for the narrow constituency that receives protection from competition, but they artificially hike prices for everyone else, hitting the poor the hardest. Economist D. Eric Schansberg, in his 1996 book Poor Policy, estimates that Americans pay $25-$30 billion extra on clothing each year because of textile protection and $3.2 billion extra on snack food due to the sugar tariff, to cite just two of many, many examples. Poor people, of course, spend a large share of their income on clothing and food, making such tariffs an especially cruel deal for them.
Tariffs also choke off the only effective way for wealthy countries to materially help poorer countries. Foreign aid has no great track record of lifting poor countries out of poverty, and often it enriches only Third World rulers. Trade with the West, on the other hand, offers people in poorer countries a better life through productive labor and gives foreigners the dollars to buy American goods and services. And those foreigners aren't fooled by the high-minded rationales that American protectionists offer for tariffs: "They're just looking after their own interests," said one Hong Kong resident during last year's anti-trade riots in Seattle. "That's a bit selfish."
Many Americans don't see it that way, because the harm such covetousness causes is so easy to overlook. There's no line on a receipt that tells a struggling single mother how much more she pays for a product because of a tariff. No one mourns the plight of a poverty-stricken Third World village that Washington prevents from trading with the United States. And no network reporter will run a story about the American jobs in export industries that are not created because of U.S. tariffs.
Those things are hidden from our sight. But they are a kind of evil, and at their root is the love of money-not of some wealthy Gordon Gecko, but of us regular, proud-to-be-American, average Joes.