OPINION | The face of greed

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UNTIL Bernie Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1981, he had never held a steady job. Almost 40, he had been “virtually unemployed” his entire adult life. Those who knew Sanders before he was elected mayor say “he was always poor” and lived “just one step above hand to mouth.”

Despite completing a world-class education at the University of Chicago, for decades, Sanders never developed skills that would allow him to earn a living.

He occasionally worked as a carpenter, a friend recalls, but his talent wasn’t impressive.

Another friend remembers the electricity in Sanders’s apartment being “turned off a lot.” Sanders “couldn’t pay his bills,” explains his friend. To get power, Sanders mooched off others by “running an extension cord down to the basement.”

Instead of working, Sanders was dreaming of nationalizing vast segments of American industry.

In his 1992 book, “Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise,” economist and futurist George Gilder explained that greed is an appetite for “unearned wealth and power.” By Gilder’s definition Sanders is exceedingly greedy:

“The truly greedy seek…goods and clout they have not earned. Because the best and safest way to gain unearned pay is government action to take it from others, greed leads as by an invisible hand toward ever more government action — to socialism, not capitalism. Socialism is simply the conspiracy of the greedy to exploit the productive.”

Worse, Gilder observes, “To confuse the issue, the greedy smear their betters with the claim of avarice that they themselves deserve.”

Today, Sanders threatens those he condemns as greedy. He promises to confiscate a significant part of the wealth of billionaires. In Sanders’s ideal world, billionaires wouldn’t exist.

In his ongoing war with Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos, Sanders is a hanging judge, set in his thinking that Bezos and other entrepreneurs like him are greedy. The taxes Sanders would force Amazon and Bezos to pay would, in part, support those with an appetite for unearned pay or a lifestyle like Sanders lived while in his 20s and 30s.

Gilder would scoff at the idea that entrepreneurs like Bezos are greedy:

“Far from greedy, America’s leading entrepreneurs — with some unrepresentative exceptions — display discipline and self-control, hard work, and austerity that exceed that of any Washington think tank, school of social work, or congregation of bishops. They are a strange riffraff because they are chosen not by blood, credentials, education, or services to the establishment. They are chosen for performance alone, for service to consumers.”

Provocatively, Gilder explains why some homeless people are greedy. For example, today the tourism industry in San Francisco is being destroyed by the greedy. Gilder writes:

“Greed is actually the problem not of Bill Gates but of Harry Homeless. Harry may seem merely mentally ill. But he and his advocates insist that he occupy — and devalue — some of the planet’s most valuable real estate. From the beaches of Santa Monica to the center of Manhattan, he wants to live better than most of the population of the world throughout human history, but he does not want to give back anything whatsoever to the society that sustains him. He wants utterly unearned wealth. That is the essence of avarice.”

When Gilder wrote his book in 1992, he described “a carnival of greed” surrounding Jesse Jackson. Substituting Sanders for Jackson, the description is apt for today:

“If you want to see a carnival of greed, watch [Bernie Sanders] regale an audience on the ‘economic violence’ of capitalism, or watch a conference of leftist college professors denounce the economic system that sustains their freedom, tenure, long vacations, and other expensive privileges while they pursue their Marxist ego trips at the expense of entrepreneurs.”

But what of the argument that Jeff Bezos doesn’t need all his wealth? Why not allow Bernie Sanders to use Bezos’ money to serve ends Sanders deems more socially desirable? After all, Bezos could never spend all his billions.

The great economic educator Don Boudreaux explained why “wealth isn’t a blob of consumable stuff.” Yes, Bezos can’t consume all of his wealth, but he makes better use of it than a Bernie Sanders-led socialist government would. Boudreaux points out that “Bezos can — and in fact does — invest the great bulk of his wealth.”

And by investing this wealth, Bezos and other billionaires (and even tens-of-millionaires) make their fortunes available for the likes of building and improving capital equipment, for funding research and development, and for supplying seed money for entrepreneurial start-ups. In short, this wealth is already being used…“for the good of all humanity.”

Boudreaux explains it is in fact because Bezos can’t consume all his wealth that he serves humanity:

Their inability to consume all of their wealth prompts the very rich to use nearly all of their wealth, not to gratify their own material desires, but in ways that improve the economy’s and workers’ productivity. And so to the extent that government confiscates this wealth through taxation, it diverts this wealth not away from being idly consumed but, instead, away from being industriously employed.

Bezos grew wealthy because he understood better than other retailers how to serve the needs of consumers. Eventually, Amazon will go the way of Sears when some future “Amazon” will do better still. Until then, entrepreneurs like Bezos, who enrich humanity, are to be admired, not denigrated.

In contrast, Sanders failed for decades to provide a good or service that others valued. Were Sanders to realize his dream of dramatically expanding the power of government, he would destroy value. His greed, not Bezos’, would impoverish us all.

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of “The Inner-Work of Leadership.”

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