Sunday, July 1, 2001

Petty greed on a grand scale


By David Gewirtz

One of the most powerful weapons American presidents have in their arsenal is not nuclear, it doesn't fly off an airplane, nor does it launch off a ship. Rather it's what Teddy Roosevelt called the "bully pulpit," meaning a terrific platform from which to persuasively advocate an agenda.

Although it surprised me at first, I've learned that these editorials tend to be my own bully pulpit, a place where I can share thoughts and occasionally influence actions. Today, I'm going to advocate an agenda and ask you to take action.

"When people become scarcity conscious, they begin to do unfortunate things."

Over the past few months, I've become aware of three things that concern me deeply, and I think they will concern you as well. They relate to how we use the Internet and our operating systems, and they're directly related to what I consider petty greed on the part of the perpetrators. Unfortunately, due to the force-multiplier nature of the Internet, what would normally be petty acts of greed have the potential to impact most of us on a grand scale.

Michael Douglas, in the movie Wall Street, made the catchphrase "Greed is good" universal. But greed, best defined by Princeton's WordNet as "reprehensible acquisitiveness," is not good. Ambition, desire for success, even desire for material reward can be admirable traits. But, as The American Heritage Dictionary calls it, "An excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves," is not good.

Indications are that we're in a recession of sorts. My definition of recession is somewhat different than that of formal economists. My definition of recession is a breakdown in the sense of economic community. Fundamentally, recession is a breakdown in trust among those participating in an economy. I'm not talking about blind trust here. I am referring to the common trust that we all rely on to prevent anarchy. A sense of basic, societal trust.

You see, when there's a recession, it's often because we don't trust our employers to keep our jobs secure. And our employers can't trust that their customers will buy enough in order to keep jobs secure. And because customers don't trust that they'll have the income they'll need to make purchases, they tend not to buy as much.

Hence, recession is fundamentally a breakdown in trust.

That's why I've come down so hard on even the idea of recession. As soon as we give into it, trust breaks down, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's why I'm going point out three acts of petty greed, come down hard on two of them, and show how one company did the right thing and is learning to become a good corporate citizen. That company, believe it or not, is Microsoft.