Greed is good. That bit of twisted moral logic, popularized by Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street and seemingly adopted on real-life Wall Street, is what David Korten, in Yes! (Fall 2010), calls “the most incredible moral perversion.” So steeped are we in this topsy-turvy view that we don’t even notice that those no-no’s of the Christian faith—the seven deadly sins—have been co-opted by corporate and capitalist entities and turned into virtues. Although Korten speaks in terms familiar to Christians, he sees values that cut across spiritual lines and believes that “the true moral values are innate in our mature human nature.” The fact that most people know what is right and still participate in the role reversal shows just how powerful the manipulation machine has become.
That’s not all that’s amiss, though. Unlike many economists who have spent the past couple of years examining what went wrong, Korten calls a spade a spade and recognizes the difference between phantom wealth and real wealth. The latter includes tangible things like food and shelter, while the former is based on a game of speculative values. Take the housing bubble: “It means absolutely nothing in terms of houses,” Korten writes. “An increase in real housing value would, for instance, provide more comfortable shelter.” How about the stock market, that gauge of economic well-being? “Well, the fact that the total value of stock market assets can go up and down by trillions of dollars day by day is a pretty powerful indicator that it has no relationship to any underlying real value.”
Now, before you go writing Korten off as just another anticapitalist agitator, it might be useful to know that he pursued a career in international development precisely because he was spooked by the specter of communism, which he saw as a very real danger to the American way of life. The way he sees it now, though, the choice does not have to be between uncontrolled capitalism and rampant communism. Rather, there simply needs to be “an economy comprised of locally rooted enterprises owned and operated by people who live in the community and function within a framework of community moral values.” Main Street, in other words, should trump Wall Street.
This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.