It is curious, this “moral quietism in the face of avarice,” and it’s curious for many reasons. (UD‘s thinking about this quietism today because Paul Krugman – see the two posts below this one – is being greedy.)

If one human being – University of Southern California trustee John Martin – happily accepts $180 million in one year’s personal compensation, American commentators might drop a dollop of rhetoric on it (“obscene”) … Our satirists (see Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities) might ridicule it in fiction … But it’s not as if anyone in a position of, say, legislative authority in the country is going to say or do anything about it. On the contrary, it’s much more likely that our elected greed-apologists (Eric Cantor, Mitt Romney, legions of others) will lustily applaud; while our unelected apologists, the most famous of which is currently Tom “Kristallnacht” Perkins, will both 1.) express outrage that anyone would express outrage over, say, nurturer-of-insider-traders and Brown University trustee Steve Cohen hoarding nine billion dollars in personal wealth, and 2.) warn that lack of moral quietism in the face of avarice is tantamount to a violent fascist revolution.

But, really, the very phrase moral quietism in the face of avarice is the problem, no? Every element of this phrase - moral, quietism, avarice – is thoroughly rejected by most Americans. There is no level of money acquisition – acquisition in comparative terms, like Krugman’s, where his salary and work load at CUNY is humiliatingly disproportional to the salary and work load of anyone else at that public institution, and acquisition in absolute terms, as in Cohen’s household billions – which could ever rise to avarice. In this country, the correct moral position to take in regard to the personal acquisition of disproportional and astronomical sums of money is admiring approval. And… quietism? John Paul Rollert is incorrect to interpret the deafening silence at, say, the money managers at one American university receiving from that non-profit institution $25 million in yearly compensation as a kind of uncomfortable quietism. Think of it as an awed hush.

And please. Avarice? A word out of, what, Everyman? Take me back, baby. Avarice. At once a delicate word (vampire squid is vulgar) and a retro word, a tea-with-doilies word and a dead-lo-these-many-centuries word… Here comes Avarice onstage, his pockets lined with greenbacks! …

There is no avarice. There is only (as defenders of Krugman are saying today) a free market in a rich country. There is only what the market will bear. And, like most Americans, the current market (in which there is less and less “non-profit”) will bear absolutely anything.

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11 Responses to ““[W]e don’t say very much about greed, not comfortably at least. Perhaps that is the inevitable price of an economic system that relies on the vigor of self-interested pursuits, that it instills a kind of moral quietism in the face of avarice, for whether out of a desire to appear non-judgmental or for reasons of moral expediency, unless some action verges on the criminal, we hesitate to call it greed, much less evidence of someone greedy. We don’t deny the existence of such individuals, but like Bigfoot, they tend to be more rumored than seen.””

  1. Mr Punch Says:

    Arthur Schlesinger Jr. got an unheard-of $100,000 package from CUNY in 1964, I believe, which is about $750,00 today, although only part of that was salary. And economists tend to be paid much better than historians.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Mr Punch: But conditions then were atrocious: I’ll bet CUNY asked him to teach a course or something in return for the money.

  3. John Paul Rollert Says:

    I will grant that, in the popular vocabulary, “avarice” has fallen quite out of fashion, but like an antique bell, I still think it’s got a nice ring to it.

    Thanks so much for engaging the essay!

  4. TAFKAU Says:

    I doubt there’s an academic economist alive who doesn’t understand and accept the role of self-interest in organizing economic relationships. So far as I know, Krugman is not a socialist. My guess is that even in *his* definition of a fair society, the top wage earners would still make well over a million dollars a year. They just wouldn’t monopolize half the nation’s wealth or advocate–and purchase politicians who support–policies that crush the middle class and force the working poor onto the food stamp rolls.

    Should Krugman be worried about being called a hypocrite? I don’t see why. The right eventually says that sort of thing about every visible liberal who earns a comfortable living (and they were already saying it about Krugman well before CUNY came calling). It’s one of those cheap and risible shots that energize the base, similar to when they say that advocates of affirmative action are hypocrites if they don’t immediately hand their jobs over to members of ethnic or racial minorities.

    If some university offers me $225,000 per year to a job as they define it, I’m certainly not going to turn them down. If CUNY thinks they’re getting $450,000 worth of value from Krugman, why should he argue with them? Seriously, I think we’d be hard pressed to find a Nobel Prize winner at any university who works for less than $225K or who teaches multiple courses per year. By the standards of the market, CUNY may even be getting a bargain!

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    John Paul Rollert: My pleasure. Thanks in return, for reading my take on it. UD

  6. Margaret Soltan Says:

    TAFKAU: It’s precisely because taking a do-nothing job for an outrageous – hardly a mere “comfortable” – salary (again by prevailing CUNY public university – struggling public university! – standards) plays right into the hands of the right-wing that I’m so unhappy Krugman did it. And it’s not only the right-wing, by the way, that’s been calling him on it. The center and the left are also taking note. No one’s taking a cheap shot here, as you call it. Many people of many political types recognize it’s a perfectly reasonable shot.

    I can’t agree with you here:

    If some university offers me $225,000 per year to a job as they define it, I’m certainly not going to turn them down. If CUNY thinks they’re getting $450,000 worth of value from Krugman, why should he argue with them?

    I find this defense – which I’m familiar with from George Washington University’s last president, the madly overpaid Stephen Trachtenberg, who when people complained about his greed always said Hey the trustees shoved the money at me… I had to take it – risible, to use your word. Trachtenberg spent a good deal of time lecturing students about the importance of moral autonomy, of internalizing your own set of values and sticking to them — this apparently is one of the main things a good university is supposed to help you do. But when it came to his own haul he was perfectly happy to collapse into passivity. No one ever forces you to take so much more than your share of the world’s goods that it’s offensive to many, and should indeed be offensive to your own sense of right and wrong. If some university offers you far too much money to do very little, I hope you have the moral restraint to trim the amount – as John Kenneth Galbraith, to name a not-inconsequential economist, did when he returned to Harvard and, having become wealthy, accepted one dollar as his yearly salary.

    Even when he wasn’t rich, Galbraith had a rare sense of decency:

    In the 1970s, predicting that Harvard would soon fall on tough economic times, Galbraith wrote [Derek] Bok a letter insisting that he not be given any further salary increases.

    “You may laugh,” said Bok, “but I’ve never gotten such a letter since.”

  7. charlie Says:

    The very first Economics course I took, as a 17 year old, the professor stated that first principle was an ever increasing standard of living. Because the monetary masters at the Federal Reserve had mastered the business cycle, depressions were a thing of the past. Thirty years later, I can tell you he was dead wrong. If he’s alive, he’s pulling down a pretty mean pension, despite his getting it all wrong.

    Funny thing about guys like my prof, Krugman, Greenspan, or Bernanke, they’re not held accountable for their apparent stupidity. Instead, they’re allowed to indulge their cupidity, becoming emeritus members of their profession. Damn, where can I be that wrong and still pull down near six-seven digits????

  8. TAFKAU Says:

    UD: Sorry, and I’m not trying to be contentious, but $225,000 per year for an academic superstar at a research university simply isn’t over the top. There is, I would agree, much to criticize about the academic arms race going on at the R1’s, and maybe CUNY, given its financial situation, shouldn’t be playing that game, but they’re not going to get another Nobel laureate for anything less. In today’s R1, most superstars are paid loads of money for affixing the university’s name to their publications, while spending precious little time in the classroom. I’m not defending the system; I just think it’s unfair that Krugman has been selected as the poster child for a phenomenon that is otherwise either ignored or encouraged.

  9. Margaret Soltan Says:

    TAFKAU: But since you and I don’t defend the system, there’s certainly – perhaps you’d agree – a need for a poster child in order to draw attention to it (though I’ve already said in this post that Americans don’t seem to care about outrageous inequities – indeed many Americans applaud them… see What’s the Matter with Kansas?). You’re not going to get poster children from the right, since there’s no hypocrisy among the randy Ayn Randians. You’re inevitably going to get them from the left.

  10. charlie Says:

    @TAFKAU, I would suggest that the guys chronicled in the OP are being paid off for services rendered. Summers, Krugman, Kissinger, et al, were of benefit to some people, their reward is the sinecure of an academic post.

  11. Sean O Says:

    Great piece Ms UD. So spot on, the sentiment & the tea dolie feel of avarice.

    We have St Ronald of Reagan to thank for this wonderful state of affairs. He gave his benediction to greed. In fact he absolved greed of all sin and transformed it into a holy virtue. “Go forth and make all the money u can, fret not about the least of your brothers. For surely as this rising tide and tax cuts on the job creators lifts all boats, most assuredly shall the holy invisible hand of the Market provide the best of all possible outcomes in this best of all possible worlds. We are America, the shining city on a hill.”

    And thusly was any sense of proportion & shame abolished.

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