Sometimes I like to remind myself of what a nobody I am.  It does not take much to trigger these fits of humility.  A glance in the mirror or at the ever-expanding bulge in my vest is usually enough to call to mind at least two deadly sins that have tempted me all too often.  If my self-administered physical examination fails to produce results, I can always check my telephone messages: “Tom, this is your high-school friend, Bob.  There’s a fat IPO I can get you in on.  Call me back at Barnum and Associates.”  Needless to say, “Bob,” who is young enough to be my grandson, does not even know what high school I attended.  Now, a call from Bernie Madoff—that might have meant something, but I do not have enough money to interest a prince of Ponzi schemes or even a count of crapshoots.  I must make do with the varlets and knaves who, if they were not selling stocks, would be dealing three-card monte on the street.

Madoff was promising his “victims” 18-20 percent per annum, and many of his victims still think his estate can be forced to make good on his promises.  Some of them (about half) actually got out more money than they put into his Ponzi scheme, but that does not stop them from suing for the paper value of their portfolio.  It is hard to imagine the impudent greed of people who did not lose anything but now want to rob investors who lost everything.  Madoff should sue his clients for usury.  They are like the people who got mortgages on houses they could not afford and now want the banks or the taxpayers to bail them out.  Both are fools for thinking they could game the system and knaves for trying to pass the buck.  W.C. Fields hit the nail on the American head: “You can’t cheat an honest man.  He has to have larceny in his heart in the first place.”

What Fields called larceny in the heart is really only greed, our national vice.  We Americans are not stingy with our money—quite the contrary—but we have to have it the way a junkie has to have heroin; and like the heroin addict, the more we have, the more we need.  Don’t take my word for it; listen to an expert on junk: “Junk is the ideal product . . . No sales talk necessary.  The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy. . . . The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product.  He does not improve and simplify his merchandise.  He degrades and simplifies the client.”

William S. Burroughs knew a great deal about both kinds of junk.  He was addicted to opiates for 50 years, but by inheritance he was a capitalist.  His grandfather founded the Burroughs Adding Machine Company (since 1986, a part of Unisys), and his maternal uncle, Ivy Lee, was the p.r. genius who was hired to “burnish the family image” of John D. Rockefeller, a project that required more than the usual brass polish.

Since the 1980’s conservative writers have attempted to mount a defense of the robber barons and wolves of Wall Street.  The Morgans, Rockefellers, and Carnegies were farsighted pioneers who made America competitive.  Until the recent crash and even after, conservative journalists praised Wall Street investment houses for their unselfish efforts to promote businesses and put Americans to work.  Astronomical rates of interest or return are not usury so long as money is invested to help companies grow.  Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, in an interview with the London Times, insists that he and his company are “doing God’s work.”  Blankfein is certainly qualified, since he is almost literally richer than God, earning $67 million in 2007 just before his clients lost about half their equity, and now owns, among much else, $500 million of Goldman Sachs stock.

America was always a promised land for hardworking people who were willing to take risks, but they were no greedier than the ordinary lot of humankind.  It was the war profiteers of the 1860’s and the stockjobbers of the Gilded Age who corrupted the national spirit.  Mark Twain, who shared the greed of his age, lamented the loss of the gentler virtues of life, swept away in the torrents of gold-seeking and speculation.  Recognizing our national addiction, he once observed that “A human being has a natural desire to have more of a good thing than he needs.”

A libertarian would reply that “needs” rather begs the question, but then so does the libertarian reply.  It is true that needs are to some extent subjective.  Do I really need the bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label I was given for Christmas?  I may think I do, but the truth is my need can be satisfied by plain old Dewar’s or—and I cannot write this without shuddering—even Jim Beam.  But in conceding a certain amount of elasticity to the concept of needs, we do not have to follow the libertarians over the cliff into a moral and aesthetic indifference that cannot distinguish between marital love and one-night stands, between Haydn and Khachaturian or between Khachaturian and Kanye West.

Perhaps we cannot agree on what constitutes a comfortable income that will satisfy our bourgeois needs, but we should be able to find a range: more than $50,000 per year but far less than Lloyd Blankfein’s $67 million.  If just men could agree on such a range, it would have nothing to do with any government policy, but it would help us to distinguish between the enterprising man who builds a useful business that gives employment to thousands and the greedy man who sells junk or manipulates paper in an everlasting pursuit of money for money’s sake.

“Who are you to judge?” ask the libertarians, rejecting out of hand any moral or spiritual authority that can set a limit to human needs and—even if they are nominal Christians—repudiating not only Aquinas and Augustine, but Peter and Paul, and Jesus Christ Himself, Who was foolish enough to say, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Confronted with Saint Paul’s admonitions against “cov­etousness,” Christian libertarians—a phrase as oxymoronic as Christian socialists—respond with something like Calvin’s interpretation of “covetousness” as “nothing more than an immoderate desire of gain,” which leaves the door open to a life devoted to the getting and spending that men of the past five centuries have elevated to one of the highest virtues.

In fact, neither Catholic nor Anglican translations into English are much better: Greed and avarice convey a tone of moral disapprobation, while Paul uses a related pair of ordinary and nonjudgmental Greek words, the noun pleonexia and the verb pleonktein, which refer to the process or the inclination of having or getting more, which may imply “more than others” or “more than is due.”  A person afflicted with pleonexia, then, is addicted to getting more and more.  It is thus misleading to speak of an “immoderate” desire for wealth, since Bill Gates, after making his first billion, would not have thought it immoderate or immoral to continue wasting his time on getting a second billion.  At this point, it is not just greed but vanity that drives on a man like Gates or Warren Buffett, spoiled children with a Midas touch that makes their world as cold and dead as Midas’ daughter.

The teaching of Christ and the apostles has nothing in common with socialism.  Paul did not mean that Peter should not make an honest profit by selling Paul fish or Paul by selling Peter a tent.  Paul took care of his own needs.  Indeed, he makes it clear he does not want working people to subsidize the idle—even if the idle are preachers or prophets.  He tells us to work hard and make an honest living for ourselves and our families, lest we burden our brothers or become a matter of scandal to nonbelievers.  The stipulation is that the profit-taking must be constrained within limits, which brings us back to Bernie Madoff.

People like Madoff and Blankfein work within a system that is controlled by their money.  We shall never know what kind of bribes and favors Madoff arranged for major politicians, but we do know that he was giving $25,000 per year to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and made major donations to those paragons of senatorial purity, Chuck Schumer and Chris Dodd.  He may very well hope for a presidential pardon.  Madoff is an old man, presumably in ill health.  It would be cruel and inhuman not to let him spend his last days with his wife and children.  What does Obama have to lose?  Bill Clinton pardoned the equally odious Marc Rich, and Clinton himself is treated as a senior statesman, while his wife goes around the world pretending to be the secretary of state.

Among American politicians, Bill Clinton may be the living embodiment of swinish greed, a diabolical caricature of lechery and avarice that might have been drawn by Hieronymus Bosch, but he is hardly alone.  Whatever we may say in public, Americans love scoundrels like Donald Trump and Rod Blagojevich, who is appearing on Trump’s TV show Celebrity Apprentice.  Since the days of Fisk and Gould, it has been an American dream to be rich enough to commit any sin we like with impunity.  Such people do not seek humility from their mirrors but look into their flickering screens and see themselves as celebrities who transcend the laws of right and wrong.  For them, there is no god but Mammon, and Mises is his prophet.

So long as we live like swine or dream of living like swine, we shall remain suckers forever, always eager to pick the money card up from the table, always sure we can beat the monte dealer on the street or the derivatives dealers on The Street.  But there is an America that exists outside of Wall Street, Hollywood, and Vegas.  There is still good stuff in many of us, and that is why crises often bring out the best in Americans.  That is why I take hope from a financial crisis that has been aggravated by a disastrous presidency.  If we can once give up our dreams of personal avarice and global power, we can go back to doing what we do best—minding our own business instead of taking over someone else’s, rearing our own children instead of turning them over to other people, and, instead of watching, texting, and twittering, living our own lives.