As I recently walked down State St., I noticed a homeless man on the sidewalk, his knees exposed through giant holes in his jeans. The sight of his ragged pants brought my attention to the well-tailored, department store-bought jeans I was wearing as I passed him. It filled me with enormous guilt as I thought that had I given the homeless man the money that I had paid for my jeans, it may have paid for a few weeks worth of his food. And while buying marked-up denim wasn’t an act of malice, it was undeniably greedy.
When it comes to the recent economic meltdown, greed has arguably played its biggest role yet. Each day, the headlines illuminate a story of self-indulgence that ranges from Wall Street and Madoff to the shady tax practices of D.C. insiders. And though the writing is on the wall, I sometimes doubt that anyone’s reading it.
Greed will remain part of our culture so long as it continues to be taught early to generations of future leaders. One need not look further than to the many freshmen currently enrolled in introductory economics courses here in Ann Arbor. The majority of these students are hoping to be admitted into the prestigious Ross School of Business, to which thousands will apply in the coming weeks, in hopes of someday running a Fortune 500 company.
But perhaps if they were looking to use their economic powers to do something good, those financial wizards might consider the Ford School of Public Policy. Despite the fact that the Ford School is one of the highest-ranked public policy programs in the country, only about 150 University undergrads apply each year. Evidently, learning how to better society is less appealing than learning how to make yourself rich.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be wealthy. On the contrary, the desire to amass wealth is quite possibly the single greatest driving force that keeps the economy moving. But as a result of so many brilliant minds focusing on making as much money as possible, resources are grossly limited in sectors apart from business and finance. Government, for instance, is debilitated because there is a shortage of great intellect in the public sector. As a result, the character of our legislators struggles to live up to those of our history’s political heroes.
Perhaps if the best and the brightest were encouraged to go into public policy years ago, rather than into more self-serving careers, then the current debate on Capital Hill would be different. In that case, maybe legislators would see themselves above petty partisanship, embodying something academic rather than something prejudiced. It seems logical that if we want a smarter government, intellectual people must be compelled to enter into government positions.
That is not to say that there are no born leaders or geniuses currently in Washington. There are indeed a handful of great members of Congress on the Hill, but less than stellar legislators outnumber that group by far. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court comes to mind as an example of a public servant at her finest. Though she will probably soon retire, the leadership she has shown on the Court has been outstanding.
And in the White House, President Obama’s political prowess has yet to be seen, but I still have hope. Specifically, I have hope in his power to motivate intelligent young people to be interested in politics to the point where they ignore the fact that a career in politics might not be the highest paying.
New intellect needs to funnel into Washington to ensure quality governance for the future. In order for that to happen, people have to believe that making money is accessory to making the world better. Greed may have worked for a while on Wall Street, but that clearly failed. And in the ensuing years, greed won’t cut it for Washington.
Matthew Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.