Greed Stole the Mantle of Business Acumen

07/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If you are old enough to remember Eisenhower as your President, you are old enough to have known a business community that was populated by men of some integrity. Not all were such, just like everyman, there were some for whom the temptations of fraud and theft were just too great. But as a whole, business was more responsible to their customers, the public and their nation then, as Ian Fletcher notes in his Economics: How to Cure a Sick Discipline. It was an environment that made the fantasies of Ayn Rand seem more plausible, that a noble business man's rational self interest is to be relied on more than any interference from government. She and they, the businessmen, could not have known that her raptures on the subject would lead to disgrace and discredit for the exact same souls she sought to deify.

It would certainly be more efficient of government spending if businessmen reliably attended to broader interests than their personal bottom line. But we have entered an epoch in which that is not the case by anyone's measure outside of the very board rooms that countenance the financial misdeeds we now lament. We didn't need business police for a while after the Roosevelts. The threat of the law changed the business landscape channeling it to select leadership that would not run afoul of the regulators. Fealty to a greater good was effectively internalized by business. Deregulation changed all that and in short order. We will have to do it all over again as business leadership has degenerated to the point that the term business doesn't seem to apply anymore. We now have a white collar Mafia constructed to do just enough commerce to white wash their theft. Push this envelope just a little more and they may even drop the pretense.

Certainly the party of big business, the GOP, has dropped the pretense of legitimate argument. By means of coffers filled with ill gotten gains the new era of corruption in our government threatens to sink the last vestige of representation for the public interest over business interest, the Democrats. Both parties, in the grip of a campaign system accustomed to gorging on money, have left most semblance of forthright advocacy behind. Instead we argue hot button Schizoaffective drivel. What we ought to argue, instead of laundry lists of distractions based in peri-religious hoax and fear baiting, is how to recapture the more pleasant state of affairs that proceeded from the last round of regulation in the 1930s.

The rational argument is about how to achieve a business climate in which business does more good than harm to the country, to the public and, ultimately, to itself. You might even call it rational self interest.

Greed is not rational. Greed fears a world in which all systems fail, a private hell of aloneness. Greed does not recognize that it is the driving force to create the failure that it would hoard to avoid. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy in practical terms. It destroys because it fears destruction.

To allow the greedy the leadership of a business or a country is to enable their disordered world view. Yet somehow we have come to attribute business acumen to the most greedy. They produce the most profit in the shortest period of time precisely because they do not believe in any future. Consequences are not real because there is no tomorrow past the bonus deadline for the fiscal quarter. And somehow we keep mistaking this for success. It's not.

Examining the shambles of American businesses wrecked by M/A and LBO activity for the last three decades, it is easy to see that many of those ruined companies would have still been there were they not dismembered to line the pockets of the greedy. It is also apparent that the destruction served no greater goal for the nation. Entrepreneurs, true entrepreneurs, do not sack companies. They build them. Building companies takes acumen. Gutting them takes only greed.

If this current round of regulating finance is successful, finance will, again, internalize the mores that led America to its greatest successes and prosperity. It will enable true business acumen and not confuse it with greed. Business will self regulate again in short order, organically. The massive financial police force will be obsolete itself in a decade. It will last long enough to drive the criminal element out of our banking system, and our corporations, and condition both to serve the public rather than steal from it. We will all be better off, even the bankers. The greedy will go back to selling used cars. Then the process of deregulation will begin anew. If we don't remember that is.