When Greed and Stupidity Are Both Pretty Stupid

When given only two very bad impulses to guide human behavior, which one would smart people choose?


Times Columnist David Brooks answered the question by wading into the battle of ideas between greed and stupidity--specifically the role greed and stupidity played in the great financial unraveling of 2008-09. Brooks decided that stupidity wasn't all that bad compared to greed.

Perhaps it was just the (much disputed) conservative in Brooks kicking in to say one of these equally nefarious motivations was necessary to embrace if we want to preserve a political and economic culture of minimal government oversight friendly to cowboy finance. We've known Brooks was a free marketeer for a long time, but until now, he's always seemed like a smart one.

The Brennan Center's Monica Youn explains schoolingly that choosing between greed and stupidity implies an ultimately false dichotomy. In reality, both of these baser instincts were necessary, in great abundance, to create the financial debacle which we will be cleaning up for a long time to come. Youn writes, "discarding the greed narrative in favor of the stupidity narrative is the old tale of the blind men and the elephant—a refusal to recognize that both trunk and tail are parts of the same animal."

Micheal Lewis would likely agree with Ms. Youn in her rebuke of Brooks. When he spoke to Big Think about the free market and morality he had a lot to say on greed: "I think greed is sort of a professional obligation on Wall Street. Not being greedy on Wall Street is like not wanting to be funny for a comedian."

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