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I Want To Be Greedy for the United States

drumpfThis is a post by Jared Poley, author of The Devil’s Riches: A Modern History of Greed (Now in Paperback!). The Financial Times called this book “…a thought-provoking study of a subject that is too often taken for granted, rather than subjected to critical examination.”

Back in late January 2016, just before the Iowa caucus, Donald Trump held an event in support of military veterans. Exhorting the crowd to donate to veteran’s charities and critiquing the power held by lobbyists over the political system, Trump took the opportunity to express what might be called his theory of financial success and how it related to larger geopolitical realities.

“I don’t feel good about turning down money,” Trump told the crowd, “because my whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy. I’ve grabbed all the money I could get—I’m so greedy. But now I want to be greedy for the United States. I want to grab all that money. I’m going to be greedy for the United States.” Setting aside the question of whether Trump meant that he was going to be greedy for the United States or on behalf of the United States, his statement nonetheless expresses an important idea: greedy people are fine, and greedy leaders are better. Indeed, the leader who seizes the wealth of others in order to support his state simply acts according to the most obvious dictates of power politics.

Trump presents himself as the exemplar of pragmatic capitalist deal-making, and we would expect to hear from him the argument that capitalism and markets improve conditions on both sides of a transaction. But his statement is jarring in part because it sounds so extractive and one-sided – so old fashioned and precapitalist – in orientation. Trump no doubt buys into the idea – commonly expressed since the 1980s – that “greed is good.” But Gordon Gekko’s capitalism, crony as it might have been, at least positioned the profit motive as a legitimate approach to economic exchange. Trump misses even this point. When he talks about being “greedy for the United States,” he really means that the country should turn back the clock to the sixteenth century and pursue mercantilist rather than capitalist relationships.

Perhaps Trump’s view of the relationship between money and state power is informed by Machiavelli’s The Prince (1515), which counseled Machiavelli’s patron Lorenzo de Medici to exercise a careful stewardship of resources: “…a prince ought to care little—if he wishes not to have to rob his subjects, to be able to defend himself, not to become poor and contemptible, and not to be forced to become rapacious—about incurring the name of miser.” Being greedy, and “greedy for” the state, was of little concern to the powerful prince. Reputation mattered less than the ability to exercise power, and being attacked as a miser was less worrisome than a depleted treasury.

But this idea fell out of favor. Frederick the Great, King of Prussia and “first servant of the state,” argued in his 1740 book Anti-Machiavel that large states like his operated in a completely different economic environment. Frederick put it like this:

The luxury which comes from abundance and makes riches circulate through all the veins of a state makes a great kingdom flourish. It maintains industry and multiplies the needs of the rich and opulent, thus tying them to the poor and indigent. Luxury is to a great empire what the diastolic and systolic movements of the heart are to the human body. It is the spring which sends the blood through the great arteries to our extremities and makes it circulate through the small veins back to the heart for redistribution.

Unlike Machiavelli (who counseled his prince to save), Frederick tells his subjects the opposite: spend, and satisfy your desires for luxury through the market, because a rising tide lifts all boats. Miserliness is nothing other than the economic equivalent of atherosclerosis.

If the Wharton School succeeded in teaching him anything, Trump must be at least passingly familiar with Adam Smith—arguably the most significant economic thinker of the eighteenth century—who was particularly concerned with miserliness and accumulation. Like others from the time, Smith bluntly assessed greed as an economic problem. Feeling the Bern, as we might say today, he explained in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) that the desperate search for status generated all sorts of problematic economic behaviors: “Nay, it is chiefly from this regard to the sentiments of mankind, that we pursue riches and avoid poverty. For to what purpose is all the toil and bustle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power, and pre-eminence? Is it to supply the necessities of nature? The wages of the meanest labourer can supply them.” Avarice and greed did little but warp the sensibilities of otherwise normal people.

When Trump makes some claim about seizing resources and “being greedy for the United States,” it is worth recognizing the anti-capitalist content of that position. Not content to achieve economic dominance through market mechanisms—even the ones that Frederick the Great and Adam Smith identified—Trump advocates policies closer to those of George III. Trump projects a misunderstanding of both history and economics when he extolls the virtues of greed, suggesting mercantilist solutions to capitalist problems. Seeking to make America great again by putting America first, Trump would return us to the seventeenth century. Indeed, Trump’s love of mercantile greed—and the equally bizarre disavowal of capitalism’s faith in the virtue of markets—might best be understood as symptoms of some underlying malady.

Recognizing a similar principle at work in the early twentieth century, John Maynard Keynes argued that “the love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.” Keynes was not the first to recognize greed as a pathology. Indeed, it is worth noting how the greedy were described in a seventeenth century physiognomic text: “Of the Covetous. His Face, Members and Eyes are little; his Complexion somewhat Ruddy, hath a crook’d Back, and a sharp piercing querulous voice.” Sound familiar?



Devil's Riches
Jared Poley is Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University. He is author of Decolonization in Germany: Weimar Narratives of Colonial Loss and Foreign Occupation(2005) and a co-editor of Conversion and the Politics of Religion in Early Modern Germany (2012) and Kinship, Community, and Self: Essays in Honor of David Warren Sabean(2014).