Morality is Destiny

by Mordecai Plaut

The economic system of the modern world is based on greed: everyone is always supposed to try to make as much money as he or she can. Since, if something is scarce its price will rise, all resources will always be employed in the most efficient way as they chase the greater profits brought about by those high prices. This system is by far the most successful at creating great wealth.

Recently the greed has gotten out of hand and it has led to theft and fraud. The corporate officers of several of America's biggest and most prominent companies were indicted for crimes that were clearly motivated by greed. The leaders of a conglomerate called Tyco are accused of looting $600 million from their corporation, beyond the millions that they were legally paid. Arthur Andersen, one of five huge accounting firms in the United States and all around the world, collapsed after it approved dubious practices in several companies over many years and then was convicted of not cooperating in an investigation against it.

Worldcom is a huge telecommunications company that is one of the pillars of America's telecommunications system. For years its financial performance was unbelievably good. Many of their competitors strained themselves to try to emulate them. It turns out that their numbers were too good to be true: they were fraudulent. The company has restated its past profit performance, and top officers will be tried. Senior management raked in hundreds of millions of dollars from selling stock and stock options.

The first failure was really a Texas company called Enron. Though no longer the largest failure (Worldcom took over that dubious honor) it was in many ways the most spectacular. It was among the most admired and apparently fastest growing companies in America -- before its main skill was shown to be a flair for fraud. Disguised loans, market manipulation in California, conflicts of interest, artificial transactions to bulk up its business -- these have been revealed so far but who knows what else remains hidden? A large part of its apparent achievement was developing an energy trading market, but now it turns out that most of that development was a game of mirrors. Now that Enron has gone, the whole market has shrunk enormously and the other companies that were in the energy trading business have gone bankrupt or drastically cut back.

This list could be made much longer.

The government of the United States realizes that it must do something. There is dissatisfaction with the exposed corruption. But there can be a problem, as put very sharply by Theodore Roosevelt, in a speech called "The Man with the Muck Rake" made almost 100 years ago:

"So far as this movement of agitation throughout the country takes the form of a fierce discontent with evil, of a determination to punish the authors of evil, whether in industry or politics, the feeling is to be heartily welcomed as a sign of healthy life.

"If, on the other hand, it turns into a mere crusade of appetite against appetite, of a contest between the brutal greed of the `have nots' and the brutal greed of the `haves,' then it has no significance for good, but only for evil."

The events that came to light in the past year have shown very clearly how greed can lead to theft and fraud. Greed in fact is a normal human desire. If tempered by restraint and guided by morality, it can be a powerful force for good, and if not, it will result in terrible evil.

Again we see how essential morality is for success of any kind in the material world. People repeatedly think -- individually, collectively, privately and publicly -- that they can get away with it. But in the end, morality is destiny.

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