The Real Definition of Original Sin

August 02, 1994|By RAY JENKINS

In a world in which evasion, dissembling and question-begging are the coin of the realm, it's refreshing to hear politicians like Joe Curran, who this week denounced as ''hypocritical'' the investment of state-employee pension funds in tobacco companies while the state energetically seeks to curtail the use of tobacco products.

The attorney general could have gone much further. After all, Congress enacts generous subsidies for growing the tobacco which the surgeon general deems so hazardous. The state of Maryland enjoys copious tax revenues from the sale of those hazardous products. Does it not logically follow that state pensioners should likewise share in the largess by investing in tobacco companies?

The fact is, there is not so much a moral dilemma as an inherent NTC role-conflict between the attorney general, who is charged with protecting citizens, and the pension-fund trustees, who are charged with making safe and profitable investments.

But if we should, in a moment of self-righteousness, compel the pension funds to sell all tobacco stocks -- which no doubt constitute only a tiny fraction of the total investments -- we may rest assured that the portfolio would be rife with other holdings which are, by one light or another, morally tainted. That's the nature of investing in the modern capitalist economy.

To be sure, government places limits on capitalist ventures through laws, and religion attempts to curb the most extreme avaricious instincts through moral strictures.

But within those puny constraints, anything goes. ''Greed is good,'' the enduring cliche from an otherwise forgettable film entitled ''Wall Street,'' is just a crude re- statement of Ayn Rand's ''Virtue of Selfishness,'' a crypto-theological tract which contended that a collective good comes from individual pursuit of self-interest. Three episodes of recent years are revealing.

* When the nuclear-power plant at Chernobyl erupted in 1986, Chicago wheat futures jumped dramatically in anticipation that Russia, with its breadbasket irradiated, would have to buy more wheat from America -- wheat which, let it be noted, would feed the Red Army which then still menaced Western Europe.

* On the day after the basketball star Magic Johnson disclosed that he had contracted HIV infection through heterosexual contact, a major condom-manufacturer, which was struggling for survival in the age of The Pill, experienced a substantial overnight jump in its stock price.

* Recently the Wall Street Journal carried a story about investment opportunities in various medications and devices which enable people to quit smoking. Appended to this story was a reference to another story in the same edition reporting that the cigarette ''price war'' may be over, so there was now money to be made by feeding the nation's most widespread drug addiction.

Now, probably no single person in America sat down and made a cynical calculation to profit from the misery of the Russians, or the sexual appetites of Americans, or the piteous personal plight of nicotine-addicted human beings. Yet that is precisely what was being done through the indifferent sweep of Adam Smith's hidden hand.

If I sound moralistic, let me readily confess that I own a few shares of a tobacco company; they were purchased as a part of an investment plan carefully crafted by a stockbroker whom I pay to make money for me. I have no choice but to play by the rules of capitalism. It's a variation, I guess, on Reinhold Niebuhr's enduring dilemma of the moral man in an immoral society.

Nor can any investor escape the dilemma, because Wall Street, the temple of world capitalism, has become like the House That Jack Built in the Mother Goose tale: If you follow the trail of inquiry far enough into the arcane world of mutual funds, you will find that everyone, and hence no one, is culpable. So other than avoiding the most cynically nefarious enterprises, like gun manufacturers, I don't even consider the question.

Early in my life in Methodist Sunday Schools I heard a lot about a mystifying concept called Original Sin; only years later did I conclude that ''sin'' is really just an acronym for Self-INterest. It's inescapable.

But for God's sake, let's don't pretend that making money is a moral exercise.

Ray Jenkins is the retired editor of The Evening Sun's editorial pages.

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