Theodore Roosevelt Island

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Theodore Roosevelt Island; Washington, District of Columbia, United States

Greed Is Not Good

“My hope is that the ethos paraded in popular culture and media of ‘Greed is good’ first popularized back in 1987 by the fictional character on Wall Street known as Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) will die out and be replaced by a different ethos.”

The ethos of an era or a generation usually spans about 40-50 years. I think we are living in a time of great upheaval obviously due to the COVID-19 pandemic but also due to the economic and social disruptions that occur as a result. What was thought to be as acceptable before the pandemic will likely draw condemnation and pushback after the pandemic. My hope is that the ethos paraded in popular culture and media of ‘Greed is good’ first popularized back in 1987 by the fictional character on Wall Street known as Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) will die out and be replaced by a different ethos.

I’m not sure exactly what that new ethos will become but I do fervently hope that it will push back on the notion of greed being good at all but rather a detriment to the wider society. This new ethos in the 2020s and beyond will hopefully not prioritize the pursuit of money and fame above all else but rather the pursuit of kindness, caring for others, and leaving the world better than we found it.

While Gordon Gekko is just a fictional villain and the movie ‘Wall Street’ fictional in nature, there are examples throughout our society where people actually believe the ethos of ‘greed is good’ and actively pursue it in different ways without understanding or caring about the repercussions.

I’ll give a few examples that are not from 1987 or even earlier in the 1980s but from 2020: A college admissions scandal which involved bribery so the children of well-to-do families could get into prestigious colleges without earning their admissions, Multiple U.S. Senators caught red-handed doing insider trading to profit off of a pandemic and then not admitting their wrong doing, and large firms receiving loans they likely don’t need while they use that money for stock buybacks rather than investing in the solvency of their workers during the height of this unemployment crisis.

These are just three examples of this hopefully dying ethos of ‘greed is good’ but the problem still is that these kinds of practices, while they are being condemned, they are not being cracked down hard enough and the laws have not been changed enough to prevent future misdeeds. When you have an economy that protects high income inequality, lopsided CEO-to-worker compensation ratios, and a consistent hesitancy to guarantee collective bargaining rates for employees and an ability to raise wages to livable levels, that shows that ‘greed is good’ is still a predominant ideology that is hurting the average person.

The stock market may hit all-time highs but that is good news only for those who actually own stocks and that number is only over half of Americans whereas the gains of the stock market are only truly felt by the Top 10% of income earners. The previous financial crisis of 2007-2009 showed the world how ‘greed is good’ can cause companies to go bankrupt, houses to be foreclosed, and businesses to be shuttered, while no CEO who was responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis actually went to jail. The bonuses continued to flow, and the banking system maintained its solvency, but unemployment and inequality grew for the next few years with both now increasing in 2020 even while the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 30k for the first time.

I should state clearly that I am not against people going into business, try to make money for themselves to feed themselves and their families, and enjoying the fruits of their labor. However, when people are caught being greedy and harming others in the process as which continues to happen, there need to be harsh consequences and changes to the law. As Theodore Roosevelt knew as President, corporate oligopolies need to be reined in, broken up, and held accountable. Gilded ages may be good for the few, but they lead to disaster for the many. In this pandemic, many billionaires have seen their net worth skyrocket and their stock prices increase but at the same time, you have millions of people jobless, homeless, and in food lines often for the first time in their lives.

The ethos of a culture has to push back against this kind of greed and ignorance. It starts with condemning the actions of those who don’t play by the rules, won’t change the rules to be fairer, and who go out of their way to make life difficult and unfair for others trying to succeed. It also means calling out those people who refuse to pay taxes, use offshore tax laws to park their money elsewhere, and whose companies don’t pay a time in actual taxes while other parts of society suffer. Not only should these practices be condemned but they should be made illegal as well.

Social trust, belief in the goodness of others, and the willingness to do what’s right suffers when greed is pursued #1 above all else. The past thirty years have shown this to be true as the increased financialization of the economy as a whole, loose regulations, increased corporate influence and money in government have all atrophied our system to where we are dealing with serious labor, environmental, and employment concerns.

Not everybody who has earned a lot of money is greedy, but they have a role in helping to make the system fairer by abiding by the rules and respecting the fact that they do have a role in allowing others to have their chance to be successful. You can’t climb up the ladder and then pull it out from under you when you get there. Others who are not greedy but do well for themselves have to remember that they have a responsibility to hold those in power and those who have immense wealth in check to be consistently vigilant that they are not flouting the rules or if the rules don’t exist yet, perhaps they should be incorporated to combat unrestrained greed.

There will always be some kind of inequality and differences in outcomes in a capitalist system but there are clear signs to tell when that inequality has gotten out of control, when greed has become too prominent, and when justice or basic fairness has taken a back seat. Greed is not good, and it should be one of the guiding ethos of the next generation. Being a success, working hard for that success, and spreading that success around so others have a good shot at it is a much better philosophy to embody. What’s good for you is not always good for others. It is important that those with immense wealth or power understand that they too live in a society and there are certain duties and obligations that we have to one another.

Knowing when enough is enough, knowing the difference between right and wrong, and knowing when things have gone sideways and need to be fixed, those are all key components on pushing back against the ‘greed is good’ ethos, which has had its prominence over the past four decades. Greed can harm others, do tremendous damage, and atrophy the bonds of trust in our society. It is important that we never forget these facts and to fight against it as much as we can in our lives, both personally and professionally.  

Book Recommendations – Volume IX

What better way to enjoy the Winter season than by enjoying a few good books by the fireplace or in a coffeeshop. Whether its’ fiction or non-fiction, being able to sit down and read for an hour each day is one of the best activities one can do during those cold, winter months. The three books I have recommended cover very different themes and topics but each of them is worthwhile reads especially if you are into non-fiction. From Candice Millard’s vivid storytelling of President Theodore Roosevelt’s perilous journey to the Amazon, James Clear’s atomic habits to build a better life, and author Chris Hedges’ look into the dark underbelly of American society, each book is one that I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend to anyone depending upon what kind of non-fiction they are looking to dive into.

1.) The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

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In our current era where past Presidents settle into retirement by creating foundations, writing memoirs, and going on paid speaking tour circuits, it can be difficult to recall that there was a time when the American president would not stay still but rather seek out new adventures. President Theodore Roosevelt was just such a former President when he embarked on a perilous and physically strenuous journey down the Rio Duvida (River of Doubt) in the heart of the Amazon. In the aftermath of his election defeat in 1912, the former President did not stand idly by and settle into a quiet retirement from politics. Instead, he did what he did best and ended up taking upon himself an adventure that no other modern President would think of doing nowadays.

Still in the early days of the 20th century, it was still the age of exploration as explorers from the Western world would go to the lesser known parts of the world to make their mark on mapping areas and landmarks that had not been discovered yet. From Antarctica to the Himalayas to the Amazon, men like President Roosevelt were drawn to both the adventure and the notoriety but also to discover the flora, fauna, and newly discovered animal species, which had never encountered humanity before. This expedition’s success relied upon the men whom Roosevelt and his Brazilian counterpart, Colonel Candido Rondon, would bring on to make sure it was successful in its mission of mapping the extent of the mysterious Rio Duvida. Because of the courage, hard work, and perseverance that men including the former President’s son, Kermit, displayed, they were able to get through a series of trials and tribulations that would have broken lesser men.

Over the six-month period of 1913-1914 when the 19 Brazilian and American men descended the River of Doubt, they were faced with multiple challenges including diseases like malaria, perilous weather conditions, intense rapids, and murder among their ranks. President Roosevelt dealt with near misses to his life including a close encounter with a venomous snake as well as a ghastly injury suffered when trying to retrieve a loose canoe that caused a serious gash injury to his leg. The President flirted with thoughts of suicide after his injury and infection leading his son and counterparts to decide whether they should honor his wishes or to carry him the rest of the way’s journey. Because of their pledge to not leave any man behind including the President of the United States, Kermit and others pushed through the physical obstacles ahead of them to arrive at the successful end to their journey through perseverance and the belief in their mission to map the entire river.

Brilliantly told and remarkably intense in its description as a fast-paced tale of adventure, Millard’s ‘River of Doubt’ is an excellent book that details a harrowing journey of the 26th President, his son, the Brazilian colonel Rondon, and his courageous men. It is hard to believe that there was a time when an American president would go on a journey like this one well into his 50’s but that was the kind of man Theodore Roosevelt was. Because of his courage and his perseverance, the Rio Duvida was renamed Rio Roosevelt in his honor. This story reminds us of what it takes to push past our mental and physical limits and why we remember these tales to understand what true bravery looks like and how Presidents should act in the face of a great challenge.

2.) Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

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‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear is an excellent book on how to re-think our habits and our reliance on them based on our awareness of how they come to be, how they are implemented, and how to change or remove them based on their overall utility. As Mr. Clear explains, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” We can only develop ourselves based on the habits we have on a daily basis. In order to change them effectively, small changes that lead to incremental improvements are what we should be aiming for. It’s not advantageous to change our systems of living overnight but rather to slightly shift our habits each day and start to see progress over a longer period of time.

One example is going to the gym for the first time. You may not stay for very long but if you are there for five to ten minutes and get through the initial hurdle of showing up, you can feel better about the progress you have made. Over time, you should start to feel more comfortable and attuned to going to the gym as well as staying longer once you get used to the new routine. I found James’s four-step process to breaking a bad habit or creating a good habit to be very persuasive in its argument. The ‘cue, craving, response, reward’ system is laid out in greater detail in his book but I believe that it’s an effective tool for developing better habits and eliminating bad ones.

Also, keeping track of both your bad habits and good habits will help you measure if you are making progress with either by understanding what habits you have on a daily or weekly basis. In order to better change our habits, we firstly have to be aware of them and classify them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on their utility to our lives. For example, if you don’t floss your teeth, perhaps you have to make it attractive by highlighting the benefits associated with the action, putting the floss in a visible place on your bathroom counter so it’s visible, and then make it easy by not using mouth wash without flossing first to develop the system.

Mr. Clear’s book is easy to read, the system he advocates for is immensely appealing, and the four-step process is clear in its methodology. You cannot change your habits without doing it yourself but ‘Atomic Habits’ successfully gives its readers a vision of how you can do so while not making it overly complicated. The system is easy to follow and he incorporates outside materials like the ‘habit tracker’ to make it easy to start changing them while reading his book.

3.) America: The Farewell Tour by Chris Hedges

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Beyond the stock market, the unemployment rate, and even the gross domestic product, notable author and journalist Chris Hedges writes eloquently and profoundly about the state of America in 2019. He does this through excellent on-the-ground reporting from Anderson, Indiana to Atlantic City, New Jersey in an effort to understand how while Americans at the top of wealth and power are doing well, the rest of us are struggling to get by in this new gilded age of income inequality. Hedges pulls no punches regarding the societal ills that have been wrought due to political dysfunction and record income inequality in America by describing in great detail the effects of the opioid crisis, the recent rise of hate groups, increased reliance on gambling, pornography, and sadism to escape reality.

Our ability to combat these negative societal trends is nullified when communities are weak and the bonds that religion, union membership, and rotary groups provided have been cast to the side. In an age of increased atomization and loneliness, Hedges argues that the average person will not be able to build a better future for themselves or their families if they have no ways of accessing economic opportunities or through having deeper social connections.

This book is a true warning sign that time is running out and that we must start paying attention to the swirling negative political and economic trends going on because it is likely that the next generation in America will be worse off if serious changes are not made. By failing to combat income inequality, climate change, gun violence, the opioid crisis, and failing infrastructure, faith in both the economic and political system will continue to decline. When power is concentrated in the hands of the few, that prosperity is not going to spread around or ‘trickle down.’

While it may be a dark and disturbing book to some, Mr. Hedges is a student of history and is eloquent in describing what are the warning signs or symptoms when a society is on the verge of decline or overall collapse. From the Roman Empire to the Soviet Union, the warning signs were there in the forms of inept political leadership and an unholy concentration of wealth. Mr. Hedges warns that we are on the same path to potential ruin and that the societal hollowing out relating to increased suicides, the fall in overall life expectancy, and the epidemic of gun violence are the sad consequences of how we are failing the average American citizen in 2019.

What I enjoyed most about this book is the sheer effort that went into meeting with people across the country to get a sense of how difficult things are and what challenges they are facing. Mr. Hedges should be commended with focusing on the real issues that confront us as Americans and being a truth-teller when it is not always popular to do so. My hope after reading this dire book is that we are able to make the necessary changes and confront these systemic challenges before it’s too late.

Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

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Location: Sagamore Hill National Historic Site; Oyster Bay, New York, USA

“Get Action”

“Get action. Do things; be sane; don’t fritter away your time; create, act, take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.”

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, was unlike many of the men who came before him or who came after him who served as President. He was a truly unique individual in how much he was able to do during his life. While Roosevelt only lived to the age of 60 years old, looking at how much he was able to accomplish and what he was able to do with his life, you could easily make the argument that he lived the lives of five men put together. To put it simply, he was a man of action regardless of how strenuous and difficult that action may be.

When you look at Teddy Roosevelt, he wasn’t just President of the United States which is a massive accomplishment in its own right, but he was also Vice President, Governor of New York, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy, Leader of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American war, and a Harvard College graduate. On top of all of that, he was a noteworthy explorer who spent over two years in the Amazonian basin of Brazil, a hunter who herded cattle out in the Dakotas, and a historian who wrote several books including a military history titled, ‘The Naval History of 1812.’ On top of everything that he did, while he was boisterous and a bit cocky to a fault, he backed up his words with actions, and he did his best to maintain his integrity in everything that he did. Roosevelt was not a man who cut corners or looked for shortcuts. Once he committed himself to something, he made sure to give it his best effort.

While Teddy Roosevelt was a member of a wealthy family from Oyster Bay, New York, he struggled with adversity throughout his life. He had severe bouts of asthma and would suffer from attacks that were debilitating. Instead of staying still and not exerting himself, he found that being active, physically and mentally, would actually help to minimize his asthma and improve his spirits. Roosevelt was not a man who would go about and pity for himself ever.

He was home-schooled, naturally curious about the world, and self-educated himself in a number of subjects including taxidermy, geography, French, German, history, etc. Roosevelt to make himself physically stronger would take it upon himself to learn boxing and then rowing in his desire to keep himself fit and active. Roosevelt lost his father at a young age, which was an almost unbearable loss for him, but he used his father as an example of who he should strive to be in life in terms of his father’s morals, career, and his overall character. Also, when he was only 22 years old, Theodore Roosevelt lost both his mother and his first wife within a few hours of each other.

Losing your mother and wife in such a terrible manner would break a lesser man but while Roosevelt grieved in a manner that was natural, he knew that he must go on and that he must live up to the memory of those family members who passed before him. Theodore was not one to sit around and grieve forever but a man who desired to make the most of his life and commit himself to action. Even when he was almost assassinated in 1912 when he was campaigning for the Presidency a second time, he would read his speech and refused medical attention for over ninety minutes before seeking assistance with a bullet lodged in his chest.

What lessons can we draw in our own lives from the energetic and boisterous life of Theodore Roosevelt? There are many lessons to draw upon but the most important one that can just be summed up in two words is to “get action.” Roosevelt believed that man is most content in the pursuit of action whether its’ in the form of academia, physical exertion, public service, and military duty. Roosevelt’s life was made up of numerous actions that fit his various interests and he committed himself to these actions over a long period of time. When we read about Teddy, we admire how much he was able to accomplish and how possibly he could have done of all that. My take on it is that Roosevelt made the most of his time and committed himself to pursuits instead of lazing about and being distracted by idle pleasures.

How many of us can say that we would be able to do ½ or 1/5 of what Theodore Roosevelt was able to do during his life? Not many. In this day and age of Netflix, smartphone, video games, and virtual reality, it’s easier now than ever to not get action but to be lazy. You have to put blinders on and prevent yourself from being distracted from the technologies of today. While Roosevelt may have had a harder time accomplishing everything he did in the early 20th century compared to what he may have done in the early 21st century, his core personality, his priorities, and his spirit would not have changed. Roosevelt’s life is a testament to the power of taking actions in various pursuits and to push both your body and your mind to the limit.

He did not let his setbacks, failures, and limitations hold him back from becoming the great man that we recognize him as being today. He fundamentally knew that he was at his happiest and his most vibrant when he was putting himself to work. His hobbies, interests, and his professional career were his number one priority and he still managed to re-marry, raise six children, and explore the world from Brazil to Egypt. Did he have a leg up in life due to his family name and his wealthy background? Yes, you could argue that fact, but he made the most of the deck of cards he was dealt but still had the common decency and integrity to commit himself to public service and helping out his countrymen and women as well.

Roosevelt could have enjoyed his wealth, spent opulently on material goods and hedonistic pursuits, and sat back for the rest of his days but he was not that kind of man. Not only was he aware that he had one life to live but he knew fundamentally that every day counts and that every day matters. Luckily, he used his mental and physical prowess in the service of others whether that was in the United States Army, the Governorship of New York, or Office of President of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt put his energies and his time into productive matters and was able to do amazing things in his life. If Roosevelt were to give anybody a piece of advice today, it would be to simply ‘get action.’ Without action, there is stagnation and with stagnation, there is no future. Even if you are not successful in your actions, don’t ever be so discouraged that you do not try again or try something new.

Whether it was reading, writing, making speeches, hunting, traveling, Roosevelt was a man who embodied the human spirit when it is fully unleashed. He made the most out of this thing we call ‘life.’ If you are feeling down in the dumps and aren’t sure what to do next, just ‘do something.’ By doing something and sticking to it as a routine, you’ll get better at it and it may take you places in life that you never thought was possible to begin with. Taking any kind of action in your day to day life is the natural and healthy thing to do. Sitting in bed, lazing around, letting your mind and body wither away is no way to go through life.

When you commit yourself to getting out in the world in whatever way appeals to you, you move forward as a person and you develop yourself in various ways. You’ll fail, you may get hurt, and you will learn a lesson or two but at least you got yourself out into the arena as Theodore Roosevelt did. ‘Get Action’ are two words that can make a world of difference in one’s life. Make sure you make the most of the time for which you have been given.