When is greed good? When it’s aspiration

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works”

So said Gordon Gekko, star of ‘Wall Street’ in which a naïve stockbroker wins a dream job with his idol, the high-rolling Gekko, only to be turned against him by the corruption and excess he finds at the top of the trading game. If you haven’t seen it, please do, it explains today’s financial elite better than any documentary before or since.

If I told you Gekko has much in common with those running for the Labour leadership you could be forgiven for scoffing and immediately rejecting the notion. How could a party who until recently bemoaned “predator” capitalists — a phrase that could have been based on the ruthless Gekko — have anything in common with the man voted number 24 on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest villains?

What links the two is “aspiration”. If you closed your eyes and replace the word greed with aspiration the climactic speech Gekko gives at the finale of ‘Wall Street’ could be coming from the mouth of Mandelson, Umunna and Kendall or to a lesser extent Burnham or Cooper.

“Aspiration… is good, Aspiration is right. Aspiration works” — I’m sure I heard Mandelson say this on the Marr show recently.

In fact he said something akin. “People want a government that is economically competent, that realises people have aspirations and live in the real world” before describing the “predator” distinction as a “useless label”. Gekko would surely be puffing his cigar in celebration on hearing this.

As you’d imagine, Tony Blair wasn’t far behind his former comrade in backing aspiration.

“Labour has to be for ambition and aspiration as well as compassion and care. “Hard-working families” don’t just want us to celebrate their hard work; they want to know that by hard work and effort they can do well, rise up, achieve. They want to be better off and they need to know we don’t just tolerate that; we support it”

Mandelson has been joined in celebrating aspiration by all the other candidates for Labour leadership. Erstwhile candidate, Chuka Umunna was ahead of his time in 2013 saying the party’s mission was to promote “dreams, ambitions, aspirations”. Before bowing out, he offered his view again on aspiration.

“we allowed the impression to arise that we were not on the side of those who are doing well… we talked too little about those creating wealth and doing the right thing”

Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have been more circumspect but Liz Kendall has gone so far as to praise a primary school for holding an “aspirations week”. As if it’s strange to aspire to something more than you are.

It’s aspiration when it fails but greed when it works

It may seem spurious to compare greed with aspiration. It might also seem an empty word in the first place. John Prescott certainly thinks so;

“What the hell does that mean, ‘aspiration’? I hear a lot of the candidates talking about it. They’ve clearly got aspiration, but what the heck does it mean?”

This statement sums up how out of touch the Labour party are. Everyone has aspirations. Everyone wants the future to be better than the past, in whatever way they choose. In this way we are all “progressives”, something Labour used to believe they were.

On the surface its obvious what we mean by aspiration. However, it is a little more nuanced especially when we start getting towards the higher points on the income scale. Greed after all is excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves. Aspiration — according to Tony Blair at least — is the well-meaning and reasonable desire to see “that by hard work and effort they can do well, rise up, achieve”.

The difference then between aspiration and greed is the subjective definition of “excessive”.

Who judges where “excessive” aspiration — otherwise known as greed — begins? The politicians of course.

The wrong side of excessive is where the Labour leadership candidates drop aspiration like a stone. None have advocated moving from the policy of reinstating the 50p top rate of tax and only Kendall has distanced herself from the Mansion tax idea.

The treatment you receive from the Labour party is based on whether your aspirations have been achieved or not. If you are one side of the excessive line you are aspirational, on the other side you are greedy; despite it being the same emotional drive.

It doesn’t matter if you once earned minimum wage but now are a millionaire. You are expected at this point to stop aspiring to anything more and give the results of your hard work back to those with whom you’ve just been competing on the way up.

Society judges the line between aspiration and greed too. This problem comes to light when one discusses tax avoidance. I have called tax avoidance immoral before but I don’t pretend that my view means any more than anyone else’s. The issue comes when society’s morality is pushed onto others.

An example. Should a “normal” person take advantage of trust structures to avoid inheritance taxes upon their death it is viewed as the wise shepherding of resources so as to give their children a decent inheritance. However, if I were to say the amount of inheritance tax avoided ran into the tens of millions by precisely the same method, you would be appalled.

This example is different because it is deemed excessive.

Judging winners

In some ways politicians are the best people to judge greed, given the aggressive and ruthless way they clamber to the top of the political class. They of all people should realise that the drive to succeed only becomes more potent the higher up you get.

It would be wrong to leave this judgement to politicians. It is not a comfortable situation to allow politicians to make judgements on whether someone’s drive to succeed is aspiration or greed. For example, when taking advantage of tax loopholes, it is a deeply subjective judgement as to appropriateness of people’s actions and it’s often on the basis of wealth.

However, it’s not just about wealth and sometimes the judgement of aspiration vs greed can take an insidious and dangerous turn.

In another example, Margeret Hodge — the champion of the down-trodden against the evil forces of mega-corporations — herself takes advantage of offshore accounting structures when selling stakes in various businesses, potentially saving her millions. In this case, her actions are overlooked because she is vocal in her pursuing of Starbucks and Amazon.

This example is different because of the person involved.

The same is true for Warren Buffet, the lovable mega-wealthy investor who admitted he “pays less tax than my cleaner”. Mitt Romney however was chastised for the same crime. Again Buffett is different because of his lovable and cuddly appearance against Romney’s cold exterior.

By making the distinction between aspiration and greed one opens judgement of people’s actions up to subjective measures. This must be avoided. It is clearly a dangerous precedent to open judgement of people’s actions to narrow views of morality, open as they are to outside pressures and witch-hunts.

Greed and aspiration are exactly the same drive, at different points on the pay scale. They are not more or less altruistic or morally good. Therefore the Labour leadership candidates need to channel their inner Gordon Gekko and make peace with the fact that as long as it stays within the law — as Gekko didn’t — greed as well as aspiration is good.

They must stop bashing the wealthy, they are only aspirational people for whom aspiration worked. They must avoid projecting morality and subjective judgements onto the public. That way tyranny lies.

Originally published at www.thelaymansterms.com on June 1, 2015.