Letter From Paris: Greed Heard Round The World

03/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My husband, Jim Morgan, and I were cutting a wave in our brisk walk on the quay along the Seine. We had come home from the U.S. over fed and over drunk, over spent and over socialized. I needed the cold fresh air to snap me awake. I wanted Paris to soak me back up in her skin again, so I could slip through her veins and ride in my bubble of her full-bodied blood. I was getting energized. The sky was winter gray, but I didn't care.

We were beginning to cross the Pont Neuf, just past the opening to the Place Dauphine, when right in front of our eyes, the blocky woman stooped to the sidewalk, and miracle upon miracle, opened up her hand with a golden ring in it. A big smile spread across her round face, catching the edges of her ear-length black hair, as she presented her palm to us. She opened her mouth and started to say something, but I beat her to the punch. "Scammer," I yelled as we kept walking. "Con woman," I hollered, turning back in her direction so she could hear me.

I knew she spoke English -- and well -- and she would not slow down herself. She would keep moving even though she briefly turned around to watch me continue to call her out, loudly and publicly.

This con has happened to me so many times, usually in places heavily trafficked by tourists, that I'd taken a stand several months ago. If these gypsies, usually young to middle-aged women, were going to try and take my money, then I would spoil their game for anyone in earshot. Teach these grifters a lesson? I am not that optimistic.

Like my friend Katherine Mosby, who is here for the French launch of her novel The Season of Lillian Dawes or Sous Le Charme de Lillian Dawes, said to me, "It's just like David Mamet. For the con to work, they're counting on someone's greed."

Next door to France, the World Economic Forum is meeting in Davos, Switzerland, and greed is being covered on a much more sophisticated scale. They say the atmosphere isn't up to the usual glitziness, and that's a sign of the times:

The World Economic Forum was set up in 1971 as a business and academic think tank whose motto is "entrepreneurship in the global public interest". Its annual Davos meeting has grown into a huge event that has become a focus of anti-capitalist anger.

The Financial Times newspaper predicted this year's meeting would be characterised by "sobriety and self-recrimination" with fewer glitzy cocktail parties and corporate skiing jaunts.

Instead, participants are invited to an event that simulates life in a refugee camp and asks them to navigate a mine field, while non-profit groups will hand out awards "for outstanding achievements in social and environmental irresponsibility".

Check out the full link here.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao started out this Davos session wagging their fingers at the United States for the global financial crisis, and why wouldn't they? But people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Russia's mega-millionaires and billionaires (and what about Putin himself?) have made off like bandits with obscene amounts of money, when Russia was ripe for the taking. Besides that, greed is well known for its magnetic attraction to power and control over people and territory, which Russia is no slouch at and where China also shines. Will Tibet ever taste the breath of freedom again?

But I'll stick to monetary greed just now, and we have had our fill of it. Former Merrill Lynch chief executive John Thain laid off thousands of his employees, while spending $1.22 million on redecorating his office. He gave away billions in bonuses to his staff, while the government bailed out his company. Then there's the $50 million jet Citigroup had ordered and would've taken possession of if their corporate hands hadn't been slapped away from the Dassault Falcon 7X jet cookie jar. This, after receiving $345 billion in government investments and guarantees?

What is wrong with these people? One might think they were on the slow side if they weren't so fast to stuff their pockets full. The Bush administration trained them well, the Pavlov to their dogs, while setting a standard of no concern for anyone else on the planet. Maybe we individual citizens should've known better than spending money we didn't have, but we were culturally encouraged in what might be seen as full-on propaganda.

Now, where do we citizens stand? Paris is simmering with today's nationwide French strike over workers' concerns about how President Sarkozy and his government have handled the world economic crisis. While banks and the auto industry have been bailed out, public transportation workers and other civil servants complain that small and medium businesses -- the people -- have gotten a big fat zero. Strikers are worried about their salaries, job insecurity, and how far their euros are stretching.

What about you?

Jim and I continued our walk across the old bridge and along the Seine. We crossed the busy rue de Rivoli to walk into one of the most beautiful and serene spots in Paris, the Cours Carrer, the place around which sits a very old section of the Louvre, rooms in which Benjamin Franklin trod in promoting his country's interest.

A young girl, no more than 15, stood in the doorway of the square, and I knew what she would do. When she held out the golden ring and looked at us with brown eyes trying to connect with us, we walked on by. "Young scamming girl," said Jim. "Con!" I yelled. "This girl is running a scam. Watch out!" She flipped me the bird.

After we reached the other side, I turned around and looked back across the sublime courtyard, and six of the grifters stood there together. Once you know the gyp it's easy to spot them. And I thought about the greed they counted on.

Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris. To check out more of her work, go to www.betharnold.com.