The influence of greed in today’s economy, for good or ill, was the topic of the Dean Ambassador Council’s “Hot Topics Debate,” themed “Greed is Good” on Wednesday evening, May 14.
The third annual “Hot Topics Debate” began with a video that volleyed between comedy skits on the economy and dramatic statements issued by the current and former presidents.
In addressing the crowd, Wayne Sandholtz returned as veteran moderator of the debate between “intellectual gladiators,” political science Professor and Department Chair Mark Petracca and political science Professor William Schonfeld.
The debate began with an opening statement from Professor Petracca, who argued that greed was good on the premise of history, human nature and economic prosperity. Petracca added that the fruits of economic greed, embodied in the charitable works of individuals like Bill and Melinda Gates or Rockefeller, reach public schools like UC Irvine.
“[Greed] enhances the prospects for charitable giving,” Petracca argued. “They know it every time they name a building, like [Donald Bren Hall].”
Professor Schonfeld countered with his own opening statement, first defining greed as “excessive” or “exaggerated,” arguing that his fellow debater had changed the meaning of greed to “justify formerly unjustifiable behavior.”
“Words do have meaning, even if some would pervert them,” Schonfeld said.
Schonfeld sought to make a distinction between an amount necessary for survival and a superfluous amount of goods, further arguing that excessive greed has led to foreclosures among those willing to invest based on greed rather than a grasp on reality.
Petracca’s rebuttal attacked his opponent’s sparing use of empirical points, arguing instead that condemning greed can lead to a slippery slope of condemning any individual for earning, or even striving for, more than they need.
“Greed is what has and what will always motivate individuals,” Petracca said.
In response, Schonfeld resorted to his original argument based on the definition of greed, criticizing Petracca’s tactic of distinguishing greed from excessive greed, as he saw this as a distraction from objectively analyzing the effects of greed.
Following the professors’ statements and rebuttals, the floor was opened to questions by audience members. The first question regarded General Motors’ regression as a result of overpaying CEOs, while a follow-up question asked for a justification for the overcompensation of CEOs at the expense of workers’ salaries. This question gave Schonfeld the opportunity to seize his young granddaughter from the audience.
“In the world that Professor Petracca would like … she would be at work now. She wouldn’t be cuddled in a lecture hall; she’d be at work making money to help the family survive,” Schonfeld said.
Another questioner sought to pinpoint greed as the cause for the failure of the economy, asking how greed can be justifiable when it has resulted in the recession. Petracca addressed the question, arguing that the current financial calamity cannot simply be attributed to greed, noting the complexity of the economic downfall.
“There are complicated reasons having to do with confidence, the availability of credit, shrinking markets here and abroad,” Petracca said.
When asked how pressure to lower prices, and consequently the price of production and salaries, afflicts third world countries, Petracca suggested that workers address their respective nations rather than the American capitalist economy.
“No other system, other than corporate capitalism, has ever produced as much largesse for so many people,” Petracca said.
Following the event, third-year international studies major Cat Ngo commented on the debate.
“The topic was lukewarm and not very provocative, but Professor Schonfeld and Petracca always do a great job working the crowd. Though these debates are few and far between, the turnout has been steadily increasing and the school of social sciences is clearly paying attention,” Ngo said.
Nikoo Heidarzadeh, a second-year political science major, had a different opinion.
“I think that such an event provides wonderful opportunities for those seeking to interact with professors and fellow students on an entertaining and didactic level regarding problems that not only affect us as students, but that we have the capacity to help resolve,” Heidarzadeh said.
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