Obama vs. the culture of greed

There is nothing evil in striving for the American dream that the president has so often lauded, but a kind of nihilistic blindness has led some to put personal gain above all else.

Conventional wisdom says a new president has a political honeymoon of about 100 days to define his presidency.

So far, it looks as though Michelle Obama has been having a better time of it in the White House than Barack.

Mrs. Obama has been on the covers of a slew of magazines, with stories inside lauding her charitable work for women and returned soldiers, her call for national service, her wardrobe, her "perfectly toned" arms. The TV networks went gaga when she dug up part of the White House lawn to plant a victory garden (no beets, because Barack doesn't like them, but plenty of arugula, which he does). Even The New York Times ran a picture of her on its front page leaning on a rake.

By contrast, President Obama was immersed in the problems of the economy: a frozen banking system, soaring unemployment, a sagging housing market, and a struggling stock market.

But what broadsided the president unexpectedly was the fury of public anger over executive compensation, specifically the $165 million in taxpayers' money as bonuses to executives of the American International Group (AIG). Compared with the hundreds of billions in government bailout money being paid to AIG and major failing banking institutions, the millions in bonuses seemed peanuts, albeit large peanuts. But the public anger was barely controllable when it emerged that the bonuses were going to the very AIG executives largely responsible for the company's failure.

The president spluttered with anger. His spokesman decried the firm's "recklessness and greed." Editorial writers burned up their word processors with denunciations. Congressmen ran for cover, demanding the hide of whomever had approved the bonuses. Legislation to recover the bonuses and curb executive greed was hastily drafted. One Republican senator, Charles Grassley of Iowa, demanded that American corporations emulate the ways of Japan, whose disgraced corporate leaders must make bowed public apologies and even commit suicide. (He later clarified that he was not actually suggesting suicide.)

The real target of all this anger should be the culture of greed that has corrupted elements of our society, particularly in financial and banking circles. Some captains of industry, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, perform great humanitarian deeds with their billions. So do some highly paid entertainment stars and sports personalities.

But in recent years, newly minted MBAs have been drawn to Wall Street, where they work 80-hour weeks and weekends, make millions for themselves and others by manipulating investments and currencies, yet produce nothing that can be perceived as of tangible value; utility; or even artistic, humanitarian, or spiritual inspiration to the community. It is this kind of nihilistic blindness, the rejection of customary beliefs in morality and religion, that leads the Bernard Madoffs of this world to plunder many millions of dollars from trusting investors for more luxurious homes, expensive cars, boats, and collections of bejeweled wristwatches, with no concern for the victims of their fraud.

As we deplore the culture of greed in high places, we should ask whether the would-be-rich among us also are tainted. Do we commit to grander homes than our salaries justify, glamorous automobiles we do not need, exotic vacations we cannot afford? Then there are the mortgage brokers who encourage new homeowners to assume more debt than they can pay, the credit-card exploiters who press new cards upon a teenage clientele, and the payday loan merchants who offer cash at impossible rates to the unsophisticated.

There is nothing evil in striving for the American dream that President Obama has so often lauded. It is best achieved by honest labor, careful saving, and prudent spending. My Welsh father decreed that we should save and pay cash for whatever we needed. The exception was a house, which could be paid for over time.

I don't think he ever read the words of the wise comic-strip character Pogo. But I know he would like them: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is currently a professor of international communications at Brigham Young University.

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