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CRIME & CORRUPTION OP-ED: The smoke and mirrors of greed — what lies hidden in plain sight

By Jeff Rudin | Daily Maverick | 25 Oct 2022 

 (Image: iStock)

Crime and corruption are the natural corollaries of greed. It would be an economic disaster if we were ever to succeed in tackling them. Crime, after all, is almost certainly the largest sector making up our GDP. It is thus not just good for our economic health but is an essential nutrient.

Heather Robertson asks in her Letter from the Editor (in the DM168 weekly newspaper edition) titled Greed is dragging us back into the Dark Ages: “Did the doyens of disaster who ruined Transnet, Eskom, SAA and the myriad other state-run enterprises ever think beyond their stomachs and bank balances about how their greed and incompetence are literally dragging us back in the Dark Ages? I guess not.”

What is this “greed”, about which she, like so many others, is “sick and tired”? Even asking this question might seem strange, for who doesn’t know what greed is? Asking where it comes from and whether it ever changes with changing circumstances, might therefore be more appropriate questions.

Is greed part of human nature?

Ever since people first managed to produce a surplus able to meet the most basic of basic needs — with food sufficient for feeding everyone in the extended family being the first such surplus — the most powerful and influential have made a public display of their wealth and power.

This insatiable need for public recognition is as universal as it has been constant since the beginnings of surplus production, despite the myriad forms it takes across time and place. Indeed, this, together with greed being contrary to most ethical teachings and amongst the seven deadly sins of many of the world’s major religions, is why greed is mostly seen as a timeless part of human nature.

But is greed such a fixed part of human nature? Apart from it being absent from the earliest forms of human society — and, hence, coterminous with the later emergence of class — some people have for much of human history made a virtue of renouncing all material accoutrements. This is still the case today. This renunciation of greed is sufficient evidence that, despite being seemingly ubiquitous, greed is not part of human nature.

Greed changed by changing conditions

This being so, it should come as no surprise that greed is shaped by the circumstances surrounding it and that these circumstances change. Contemporary greed, indeed, differs from all others. Making it historically unique is that greed is essential for the normal running of an entire economic system.

The health of our economies is fundamentally dependent on the endless need for more: for bigger, for better and newer, for not being left behind, a fear which is so pervasive that it has its own name: fear of missing out (Fomo).

Wealth — along with its associated power and status — has always been the main driver of individual accumulation. But the uniqueness of what happens today is lost when just seen as greed.

Unlike former times, when greed-based wealth did not mean social approval, wealth alone — or close political connections to wealth — now opens (most) doors. People accused of serious crimes of corruption not only offer themselves for public election but receive endorsement from other important public figures.

Lest this is seen as just another of South Africa’s current failings, consider Donald Trump. His unethical practices that made him a billionaire were well known before being elected president of the US. His attempted coup on 6 January 2020 and his continuing fabrications about how his re-election was stolen from him has not dented his popularity among tens of millions of his supporters.

Yes, all this points to a disturbing decline in morality, but what lies behind it? Much more than just the power of individual wealth, I would suggest.

Taking the historically standard lust for wealth beyond particular individuals is something very new. The economy itself now demands the wealth to sustain the production and consumption of literally anything and it is this imperative, with its “just business” attitude for otherwise questionable practices, that lower general social expectations and sanitises individual indiscretions.

Why are cigarettes still big business?

Cigarette manufacturers have been lambasted for knowingly selling mass killers worldwide, but none went to prison. Moreover, despite being increasingly banned in public spaces globally, the US government’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reportsthat cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death, even in the United States, where the CDC says smoking costs hundreds of billions of dollars each year. In 2020, according to the CDC, 12.5% of US adults (an estimated 30.8 million people) smoked cigarettes.

Worldwide, six trillion cigarettes are made each year. In 1900, each global smoker smoked about 54 cigarettes a year on average; in 2010, long after cigarettes were known killers, this number grew to 1,500 cigarettes each year.

In 1900, lung cancer deaths were practically non-existent in the US; in 2010 nearly 160,000 people in the US died from lung cancer, making up 30% of all cancer deaths. Second-hand smoke is responsible for 50,000 deaths each year in the US.

Furthermore, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 22.3% of the global population used tobacco in 2020, with over 80% of the world’s 1.3 billion tobacco users living in low- and middle-income countries.

With an estimated 100 million tobacco-related deaths in the 20th century, the WHO’s sobering prediction for the 21st century is one billion such deaths.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) reports that in 2017 some 15% of all deaths worldwide were tobacco-related. The rate in some countries, including China, Denmark, the Netherlands and Greece was 20%. The World Bank informs us that smoking killed more people in 2021 than Covid-19.

Indeed, cigarette sales in the US increased during the Covid-19 pandemic. Capitalising on Covid-19 fears, tobacco companies increased advertising and promotion to $7.84-billion in 2020 from $7.624-billion the previous year, with “price discounts paid to cigarette retailers in order to reduce the price of cigarettes to customers” being the bulk of their spending, according to the Federal Trade Commission in its annual Cigarette Report. All this was perfectly legal.

Against the much more difficult and urgent backdrop of climate change, which confronts us with the even greater incomprehensibility of the world’s leaders committing humankind to suicide, what possible sense can be made of the still-thriving tobacco industry?

The total size of the tobacco industry might be the answer. The tobacco market was $912-billion in 2022, with an expected annual growth rate of 2.64% between 2022-2027.

Yet, notwithstanding the undisputed power of the giant tobacco corporations and the institutional and private investors behind them, can this be a sufficient explanation for the continuation of that industry’s mass deaths and huge societal costs?

One could ask the same question of the global alcohol and automobile industries, among many others. The answers unavoidably point, not to greed, but to the nature of our shared economies. The God-like importance of Gross Domestic Product — GDP — affirms this.

Sanctification by GDP

GDP has been the measure of the health of all national economies since (roughly) the end of World War 2. The GDP’s earthly throne marks the final normalisation of economies driven by the imperative of profit maximisation. This normalisation not only allows for but encourages the production of (virtually) anything likely to maximise profit, for it is the production of anything that measures the all-important growth of GDP.

Failure to grow at a suitable rate means a sick economy, with consequent problems for most investors and all governments. GDP is universally measured every few months. Two or three successive measures of negative growth are the definition of economic recession. Increased unemployment is the invariable consequence. This is the judgement of the amoral and unelected market.

Most people in South Africa would probably see corruption as the terrifying form in which greed afflicts the whole of society. Few, however, realise the economic disaster that would follow if we were ever to succeed in tackling corruption and the broader plague of crime.

Crime, after all, is almost certainly the largest single sector making up our GDP! Besides the entire justice system (the police, judges, lawyers, and support staff), there’s the entire insurance and security industries, and the manufacturers who make all the varied equipment. Then there’s all the related advertising and the universities, etc involved in all the required training. Crime is thus not just good for our economic health but is an essential nutrient.

The dilemma of empathy

The prolific Stephen Grootes writes “the real problem at the core of every new [moral] outrage is that those who are in power are so removed from the real problems that people face, that they are incapable of understanding, or simply cannot or don’t care enough to understand, what is really happening in the lives that millions of South Africans have to suffer through” (emphasis added).

Understanding, for most people, is not the problem. They do care, to answer Heather Robertson’s earlier question. The challenge is putting a spin on it that is acceptable to both the individuals and society; ideally, simultaneously so.

Empathy is what makes life difficult for people not at ease with what they do (or tolerate others doing). Empathy is the facility (most) people acquire automatically, as a natural part of their development, from birth to the early years of childhood. Our spontaneous ability to see and feel and imagine ourselves in other people is a defining characteristic of our humanity. We (virtually) all have it, despite the current need to fragment ourselves into a myriad of competing identities.

Greed is but one of the many associated behaviours that necessitate legitimation. In some circumstances just being rich requires the appeasement of one’s conscience.

In a tellingly little-noticed speech, Thabo Mbeki addressed this challenge head-on in 1999, when speaking about black guilt evoked by implicit greed. The wealth of the new or aspirant “black bourgeoisie” (his term) created inequalities among black people disquietingly reminiscent of the (then still fresh in mind) racialised apartheid inequalities.

This, he said, “frightens and embarrasses all those of us who are black and might be part of the new rich. Accordingly, we walk as far and as fast as we can from the notion that the struggle against racism in our country must include the objective of creating a black bourgeoisie.”

From individual to social justifications

Mbeki not only recognises the empathy dilemma but offers a solution. His solution — seeing black wealth as an unavoidable by-product of the struggle against racism — relieves the individual from grappling to find an acceptable explanation for their behaviour. A socially acceptable one is provided instead.

In this instance, rather than the negative of individual greed, there is the socially noble one of the struggle against racism. This is the role of ideology.

The privileged in each group or society everywhere in the world have, since their first emergence, been able to rely on legitimisation provided mostly by others, such as:

  • Institutions, like faith-based ones, which invoke their own religions to legitimise their privileges, like kings and the feudal aristocracy being God-ordained;
  • Bad scientists invoking the prestige of science to ‘prove’ that some races are inferior, if not actually sub-human, in order to sanitise brutal exploitation, when not actual mass killing; and
  • Economists, who win prizes for providing seemingly learned explanations justifying the changing dominant forms of profit maximisation, like the necessity for 15-hour workdays and the use of child labour, or the virtues of “free” trade, or of trickle-down economics, with its claim that making the rich even richer is intended to help the poor.

Transformation as ideology

Transformation — the self-evidently virtuous goal of South Africa since 1994 — serves this same legitimising function that protects Mbeki’s black bourgeoisie from accusations of collective greed. Affirmative action and BEE are presented as socially just means of addressing the injustices suffered by black people by apartheid and its preceding decades of state-sponsored racism.

Kept in the shadows is the reality of the inequality capitalism produces and reproduces everywhere. Compounding this global reality is the primacy of our government’s policies designed to create, sustain and expand the wealth of a black elite.

The success of this policy has been South Africa’s current position as one of the world’s most unequal societies, if not the most unequal one.

Accusations of greed still persist notwithstanding the transformation protection. Recall Heather Robertson’s anger with which I began this article. But these well-merited accusations are against a few individuals only. The fact of black wealth is mostly hidden by the overwhelming focus on black poverty.

As but one example, consider the case of the National Lottery Commission. It’s been mostly in the news of late for alleged corruption. By contrast (virtually) nothing has been said about its salary structure. (I’m indebted to my AIDC colleagues, Dominic Brown and Dick Forslund for the information below.)

The National Lottery Commission has 316 workers as of 31 March 2022. Its senior grades for the current financial year are as follows:

  • Grade 7 to 10: 58 workers, average annual pay R2-million, per person — sub-total = R113.2-million
  • Grade 13 to 16: 80 workers, average annual pay R1.9-million, per person — sub-total = R150.1-million
  • Grade 17 to 22: Six workers, average annual pay R6.6-million, per person — sub-total = R39.3-million

How greed cloaks inequality

The real standout from these figures is not the annual cost of the R302,500,000 that goes to these highly privileged 144 people (the lowest paid of whom get significantly more than MPs, with the highest paid getting 41% more than even the president’s “only” R3,900,000).

Nor is it that, while constituting only 45.56% of the workforce, they grab 82.75% of the total wage bill. It isn’t even that nothing is said about the greed of these few individuals. The point is that (almost) nothing has been said. That most, if not all, of these 144 people are black (as suggested by the Commission itself) is not an issue, for the president is black, as are most MPs.

It bears reiterating that this silence speaks to the power of the ideology that legitimises these numbers. Being part of the struggle against racism, including the dominant power still enjoyed by white people, does more than just protect these beneficiaries.

The broad social acceptance of transformation, measured by the race-based requirements of employment equity, do more than just make these salaries acceptable. In a country as unequal as ours, they not only turn what might in other circumstances be condemned as naked greed into a public good but, by so doing, also serve as a distraction from the whole matter of inequality.

Ironically, this distraction also serves the interest of the white bourgeoisie, the very Other in the struggle against racism and injustice.

Capitalism, with greed as its lifeblood, is thus protected by the preoccupations of racial equity. Greed, housed in its political economy, reveals what is otherwise hidden in plain sight. DM

*This Opinion Piece was first published by the Daily Maverick

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