This commentary first aired on the PBS program Nightly Business Report .
Maybe we should have been a little nicer to all those greedy guys who wrecked Wall Street. Because we could use some greed right about now.
Hey, I understand—we need some villains to blame for our economic mess, and they can't be us—that old comic strip still isn't funny. The rich guys who ran the profligate banks are the obvious targets. They care about making money above all else, and for that, they've been trashed by politicians and voters alike.
So now we have banks that don't want to make money. They just want to sit on the money they have and make sure they don't lose it. They're afraid to be greedy, so they're being careful instead.
I liked it better when the banks were greedy. Back then, they'd loan money to people who needed it, because they'd make a profit on the loan. They made a lot of profits, which made them eager to lend a lot of money. Some of the people who borrowed the money even used it to make their own profits, by expanding a business or buying a house. When it was the little guy getting ahead, we didn't call it greed; we called it building a better life.
It used to be nice to invest in greedy companies, too, because they earned profits and their stock went up and your retirement portfolio got bigger. We didn't want them to steal or lie, but we all understood that in the Greedy Economy, the whole point of public companies was to make money.
Now we seem to have a Nonprofit Economy. Greed is unfashionable, so we're begging banks to lend money for the good of the planet or to feel better about themselves. And big surprise, bankers don't even speak that language. When there's something in it for them, that's when they'll open for business once again. Maybe there will be something in it for the rest of us, too.