Does capitalism breed greed, or elevate the greedy?

When a billionaire Koch heir announces that he's taking a break from suing ex-fiancees to give back their engagement rings and playing tennis at Mar-a-Largo in order to produce designer shirts covered in money-bags, it's worth asking: did capitalism turn this guy into a useless asshole, or does capitalism find the useless assholes and shower them with money?

It's an interesting question. There are lots of people with bad ideas and few morals out there, but unless you're born with a coal-dusted spoon in your mouth like Junior Koch there, you're probably going to have to limit your grifting to small-scale crime. So maybe unlimited money removes the brakes from the plummeting broken elevator of billionaires' follies and petty cruelties, turning bad ideas into catastrophes.

But on the other hand, the sociopath's ability to empathize with others' fears and aspirations without actually sympathizing with anyone allows a kind of Shkrellic success, a Trumpian, Madoffian con where appeals to others' worst natures and deep insecurities turns into vast fortunes.

This is one reason why the Marxist view is skeptical of “moralizing” about the rich. It sees people’s consciousnesses as shaped by the world around them, which makes it futile to exhort people to be “better.” The real task is not to make billionaires feel guilty, but to change the economic system that produces billionaires with all their corresponding unpleasant personal characteristics. I don’t share that perspective, because I actually believe that standards of what is socially acceptable are often just as powerful as economic factors in determining what people will think and do, and that if you can shift norms you can shift behavior, even if the underlying structure of the economy is largely the same. But I agree that we are made far more than we make ourselves, and that as inequality continues to worsen, we will see a certain class of people becoming more and more like the Trumps and the Kochs. Those are just the kinds of people that capitalism makes.

It's an important question at this moment of 1789-style inequality, which coincides with the #metoo revelations about powerful, rapey men. Did Harvey Weinstein gain power by being a rapey sociopath, or did power reinforce whatever latent monstrousness he harbored to flourish?

Of course, we don't need to choose: whether or not power corrupted Weinstein, it certainly protected him. The Weinstein problem isn't merely monstrousness: it's monstrousness combined with impunity. A rapey sociopath who is put in jail (or treatment, or whatever) after the first offense may remain a dangerous sociopath to his dying day, but he becomes much less of a danger after he is caught. By contrast, Weinstein was able to intimidate, sue, harass, stalk and destroy anyone who even tried to discuss his rapeyness, meaning that he got to be even more rapey over time.

The lesson for me is that concentrations of wealth (and other kinds of power, which are largely interchangeable with wealth) allow monsters to get away with it. Whether or not power corrupts, it certainly protects corruption.

There's a line in my last novel, Walkaway, where I try to get at this:

"We're not making a world without greed, Jacob. We're making a world where greed is a perversion. Where grabbing everything for yourself instead of sharing is like smearing yourself with shit: gross. Wrong. Our winning doesn't mean you don't get to be greedy. It means people will be ashamed for you, will pity you and want to distance themselves from you. You can be as greedy as you want, but no one will admire you for it."

The People That Capitalism Makes [Nathan J. Robinson/Current Affairs]

(via Naked Capitalism)

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