Saturday, November 12, 2005

I Completely Missed It

Walter Williams was on 20/20 on Friday. 20/20's been doing a weekly series about the seven sins and last night's was greed. Naturally they talked to my micro professor.

I was able to watch a segment of the episode on the 20/20 website which had him in it. I don't know if this was the extent of his participation or not but here's his quote:

Normally in our country those areas where people are motivated the most by greed are the areas we are most satisfied with. Supermarkets. Computers. FedEx. Those areas where people say we're motivated by caring are the areas of disaster in our country. Such as education. The post office. City garbage collection. Police services.

It reminds me of a book I'd like to write someday: The Ethics of Greed because greed generates the incentive that makes our economy work so well. And because it works so well, people can have greater freedom and choices, they live longer, they can do more with their lives, they are safer and they are happier (yes, happiness is hard to measure but I bet if you stuck one of those unhappy people in a third world country for a month, they'll stop complaining so much about rush hour). All of these things are what the great philosophers have been trying to accomplish for thousands of years (Plato's Republic comes to mind) and greed, the least likely of candidates, makes it possible (as well as the right institutions). How amazing is that?


jeremy h. said...

I can't believe he didn't tell us! Actually, I can believe it.

Sorry David, your idea has already been stolen. See The Virtue of Selfishness. Okay, not exactly, but that's immediately what came to mind.

David said...

Damn you Ayn Rand!

Still, while it looks like she covers some things I plan to (racism, emergencies) my book would be pretty different.

The key idea is that greed has two sides. There's the unethical side, where you take other peoples stuff you make you wealthier (this is the historical norm for greed) and the ethical side, where you get richer by providing services. One is trade, one is theft.

The book would explain, then, why greed has such a bad rap, even though that rap is not appropriate any more. I also want to use what I call the Gandhi Fallacy (being poor and miserable is more holy than being rich and happy) to demonstrate the point. (I have to make sure that someone hasn't beaten me to the punch on that idea.)

Still, it looks like the Rand book is a good buy for me to start preparing this one. Thanks for the pointer.

jeremy h. said...

Wasn't trying to discourage you, just thought I'd throw that out there. I urge you to pursue your dreams! Or something.

David said...

Oh no worries there. One of the things about me is I rarely know when to quit.

Ryan Peterson said...

Or "Fable of the Bees: Private Vices, Public Virtues" -- Mandeville has a very different take than you, though. He simply reasons that things like greed and the desire for approbation and honor really are vices in the private sense, but they are vices we ought to promote, since they generate all the things that make the society as a whole better. Just a thought.

On a sidenote, is it that people are happier? Absolutely in the short-run -- I become much happier having new things. But in the long-run? It's not enough to say that we definitely are happier because we prefer our system to the third world. That's consistent with a model that claims that happiness is derived from exceeding expectations, but that your expectations adapt to growth so that average long-run happiness is not increased measurably. It's also consistent with the claim that we're seeking goals other than happiness. And if we are made happier, don't you start running into problems if you project backwards? We're ridiculously, fantastically wealthier than our Paleolithic ancestors. If wealth generates happiness, the automatic intuition should be that our ancestors must have been so miserable that one wonders why they didn't all kill themselves, or failing that, that we must be in state of nearly supernatural bliss.

David said...

Good point Ryan. And indeed, it turns out the biggest determinant of happiness is a person's relative wealth. We don't think in absolute terms nor do we compare standard of living with people in other countries or even other neighborhoods, on a regular basis. We compare with the "Joneses."

However, I would still contend that people are happier today despite that reality on two grounds.

1. We do get SR satisfaction, but we also get it a lot, perhaps fifty times a day. Everytime I watch TV, have a hot shower, listen to music, read in a comfortable chair; these all add up and because I enjoy them over the long term, we can say that wealth makes me happy in the long term (even if I don't always realize it).

2. Wealth allows us to DO more with our lives. Not only does that allow more options for play, but it opens the door to careers our ancestors could only dream of. We are wealthy enough to get satisfaction from our work, while before it was abnormal if you enjoyed what you do.