“Greed is Good”: Or is it?

Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover are seen walking from left to right. Herbert Hoover is wearing a formal suit and raincoat with a hat, while Lou Hoover is shown with a larger coat and a bouquet of flowers.
President and Lou Henry Hoover going to their new home in the White House on Inauguration Day, March 4, 1929, in Washington DC. (31-1929-d25)

By Thomas F. Schwartz

In watching the film “Trading Places” over the holiday season, two things emerged that had previously escaped my notice. The first was a close-up of the paintings of J. P. Morgan and Andrew Mellon that hung in the meeting room at the Union League Club. This is the scene where Louis Winthorpe III, played by Dan Ackroyd, is framed for stealing, resulting in losing his job, money, and status. J.P. Morgan is often portrayed at the epitome of late nineteenth early twentieth-century greed. Yet he personally used his wealth and influence to stop a stock market collapse and bank failures in 1907 and built one of the finest collections of rare books and objects that comprise the Morgan Library. Andrew Mellon made his fortune in banking and served as the Treasury Secretary under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Even though Franklin Roosevelt’s administration hounded Mellon with failed IRS tax evasion investigations, Mellon decided to leave his priceless art collection along with the funding to build the National Gallery of Art and gift it to the nation. Both men reflect the Janus face of corporate wealth: private gain serving a public good.

The other aspect of the film that had escaped me were framed photographs in the background of the scene with the Duke brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) plotting on the phone to illegally secure information on the frozen orange juice futures report. The first of the framed images is a photograph of President Herbert Hoover with other presidents in chronological order. The obvious inference is that the Duke brothers ran in very high circles. Another reading could be that Hoover was a millionaire by the age of forty and began a series of wealthy men (Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, etc.) to be elected President.

Herbert and Lou Hoover practiced what some called “stealth philanthropy.” Richard J. Foster, a Quaker writer, provides a helpful description in the difference between “self-righteous service” and “true service” (“stealth philanthropy”):

“Self-righteous service fractures community. In the final analysis (once all the religious trappings are removed) it centers in the glorification of the individual. Therefore, it puts others into our debt and becomes one of the most subtle and destructive forms of manipulation known. The result is the rupture of community.

True service, on the other hand, builds community. It quietly and unpretentiously goes about caring for the needs of others. It puts no one under obligation to return the service.  It draws, binds, heals, builds. The result is the unity of the community.”

Richard J. Foster

The Hoovers kept their benevolences hidden so the intended recipients would not feel indebted, but empowered to overcome their adversity and become useful participants in their community. Hoover’s wealth is often cited as blinding him to the plight of average Americans, especially during the Depression. This is based on Hoover’s refusal to provide direct government payments to those in need. What is less noted is Hoover’s concern that if government replaced individual and community responsibilities caring for the less fortunate, it becomes “self-righteous service” as a faceless government claims credit in an effort to resolve a problem, often unsuccessfully.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *