Selflessness vs Selfishness

Trough time

Image by Arkadyevna via Flickr

Obama’s first order of business will be to get his stimulus plan approved by congress and signed into law. It’s current form is $825bn, including $275bn of tax cuts and $550bn of "infrastructure" spending.

And over the past several weeks, I’ve seen a number of emails and been privy to some conversations where people have been strategizing how to get some of that money for their pet project. That’s exactly the wrong approach. It’s like we are pigs eating from a trough. The US is going to be totally screwed if this $550bn is spent on everyone’s pet projects. It has to be spent on the projects that will deliver the biggest bang for the buck in terms of future economic activity.

I’m not that thrilled about the $250bn of tax cuts because I don’t think they’ll do much to stimulate economic activity, but I realize why they are in the plan. First, because Obama promised them in his campaign. And second, because it’s key to getting the republicans, both the repulicans in washington and the republicans on main street, on board.

Deciding how we spend the $550bn is really hard because it needs to be spent on projects that are ready to go now, not in 3-5 years, and most importantly, it needs to be spent on super high return on investment projects that will make this country a stronger economic player in the years to come.

And so when I see people plotting on how they can get their hands on some of that money, it makes me mad. It’s time for america to be a little more selfless. We’ve seen what the greed/me first approach has resulted in. And it sucks. We have to put our own individual needs and desires aside just a little bit and think about what the best projects are.

I realize that it’s a good idea to allow everyone to throw out their ideas and suggestions. I’m all for that. But when people are plotting about how they can "spin" their pet project as "infrastructure" spending, it’s gone too far. And we know that congress is susceptible to being lobbied successfully by people, institutions, cities, states, and corporations. So I’m quite worried that this $550bn is not going to get spent in the right ways because it’s seen as a big pot of money to get your hands on.

Maybe Obama and his team are good enough and principled enough to sift through all the requests for funds and filter out the pork. I sure hope so. But it would help a lot if everyone involved in the process of spending this $550bn would just take a step back and ask themselves if they are really acting in the best interests of our country or in their own self interests. A little selflessness right now could go a long way to improving our situation.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. fredwilson

    Or at least discussed at

  2. awilensky

    However, Fred, the first draft version of the democratic side (not incoming administration) of the legislation is all pork.

    1. fredwilson

      so we’ll see if Obama and his team take a red pencil to that bill. even better would be to tear it up and start over. that would send a message.

      1. awilensky

        Indeed. I was faintly disappointed that the party leadership didnt have a better strategy for working with the new executive, and by that I mean the OMB.What they are doing, to my reckoning, is trying not to let the new executive budgetary machine get too far out ahead, in order to retain some sense of independence. Some folks I know that got a look at the draft legislation said it, “looked like they took it out of an old filing cabinet marked, “Shitty Democratic Pork Programs”.

  3. Matt McLaughlin

    Doesn’t this seem like an activity that could be crowd-sourced? At least as a first-level pass to find and draw attention to the “Bridges to Nowhere”?

  4. Alan

    Do you apply such naive wishful thinking to your investments as well?Seriously, if you base your decisions on empirical evidence, what you are seeing is only what happens EVERY time government controls more of our economy. What it comes down to is who can best convince those who hold the purse strings.Greed is a constant – greed in the private sector can be routed around – greed in the public sector cannot. On top of that, greed in the private sector requires the greedy to offer value in exchange in order to get business (or they can lie and cheat, which is criminal, and we have laws for that). There is not need for government projects to create true value, only value for the few who work together (ie politicians and those who worship at the public teat).If your survival as a person or a company depends on getting business and the big game in town is government funding, what do you have to do to ensure your survival. Lobbying, corruption, politics as usual, yada yada.

    1. fredwilson

      Yes, I apply the most naïve thinking I can muster to everything I do in life. It works great. You should give it a try

      1. bfree

        Haha – Salted!

      2. scott crawford

        Welll said and true. Hope is nothing less. I commented yesterday to a few folks within earshot that my favorite phrase from Obama’s speech from the train trip was “Independence from selfishness.” This is key to everything. It is the antidote to the tragedy of the commons, the basis of trust. And, no, selfishness is NOT the same thing as self-interest. Peace. Hope. Willingness.

      3. markslater

        lol. brilliant.

      4. thewalrus

        Thanks for calling out the ‘greedy politician/CEO/neighbor’ hypocrisy. Macro change happens at the micro. Stay true.”Be the change you want to see in the world” -Ghandi

  5. Dan Blank

    Fred – What people call “greed” is a funny thing. I would imagine that many of those who are vying for the dollars for their own pet project, genuinely and truly feel that THEIR view of the world, THEIR project and THEIR management will lead to a better place for all of us. That if THEIR vision succeeds, that everyone is better off.I was staring out my window this morning as I worked out, looking at these huge pine cones hanging from a pine tree. They were all opened up, hanging down, having already dropped their seeds. I thought about how nature designed the concept of seeds and spreading them. At the reasons why this single tree would drop thousands of seeds around it. At how those seeds would turn into trees that would compete for sunlight and water, perhaps causing the eventual demise of the parent tree. I thought about how this tree was more concerned with ensuring that its species thrived, than its own personal life-span. I thought about how human beings differ from this – in big ways such as war, and small ways, such as cutting in line. That in many ways, we are more concerned with ensuring “I” succeed, than ensuring that our species thrives long after we are gone.Your post today speaks to this notion – that we need to rethink our own goals – to accept that our individual goals can best be served by focusing on our collective goals.What a great thought for a Sunday morning, the day before MLK day, and two days before we swear in a new president in the midst of war and recession.Have a great day Fred.-Dan

    1. fredwilson

      Great story about the pine cones. I can see it.

    2. Riaz Kanani

      Great analogy – the whole “I” thing is how Europeans stereotype the USA for better or worse – theoretically Europeans are not quite so “I” focused (again for better or worse) but of course both are in the same mess today.With the world being so connected, it will need both working together to get out of the recession quicker.

  6. Dan Cornish

    Every Engineering and Construction Firm in the US now working the halls of Congress to land projects. This stimulus is viewed as one of the greatest opportunities for the Construction business in a long time. Understand that $550B is not the final amount, since once projects get started there will be cost overruns. In addition, there will have to be another stimulus next year since many construction workers will be laid off once some of the initial project complete. The only nobel thing that can happen is if Obama LEADS and sets the direction, much like Kennedy did with the space program. I think that Obama will be worrying about maintaining power than Leading. Remember the first job of a Prince is to retain power.

  7. Rex Hammock

    Fred, I read your post via your RSS feed and I thought you’d appreciate the irony of the ad that appeared at the bottom of your post in the version I read. Here’s a screengrab of the ad:…From the ad, it appears there is an entire industry feeding the myth that the government is where you go when you want some “Free Government Money.”P.S. I’ve decided the word “Pork” is a pejorative used to describe what the *other* guy wants.Bottomline, however (when not expressing cynacism): I agree with your hopes.

    1. fredwilson

      Hmm. Google is doing some interesting targeting on the ads in my feed

  8. Drew Meyers

    Well said. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. But I have faith that Obama is the type of leader that can get people to work for the common good.

  9. kidmercury

    this is why big govt/centralized planning never works (though i think it will work online where individuals can easily switch communities). central planning in its current context will inevitably create less economic wealth than the free market would create on its own. moreover, there is a good chance these will be negative investments; not only less than what the free market would have yielded, but actually a loss, resulting in less aggregate wealth, i.e. more poverty. than govt will say it needs to get bigger so that it can solve the problem it created.and so the story goes. it is the road to serfdom, how humanity chooses slavery. at least until people reverse the psychological trade they’ve made with themselves and start going long freedom, short tyranny.

    1. fredwilson

      How can we upgrade our grid or public transportation systems? We need both badly. But there’s no way private investment will do that kind of stuff

      1. andyswan

        Why not? NYC subways started as private ventures….as did railroads, energy, telephone, internet…..Plus….public transportation sucks. I’d rather drive myself, except in NYC and maybe a few other square miles of dense populations.Bottom line…when “central planners” control the purse-strings, it’s not what you know, what you do or what you’re capable of that matters…’s who you’re connected to.See Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago…..

        1. fredwilson

          Public transportation rocks. But maybe only if you live in a city. I hatecars and love trains

          1. andyswan

            Love nyc subways too. I can see why Manhattenites think everywhere should have that kind of system. Then you go back to a normal large city and its just insane to think of trains covering 3x more land and 9x more stops for 30% of the population.

          2. fredwilson

            Buses work tooThe europeans really have built public transportation into their lives in away that we in the US have not

          3. andyswan

            We like to spread out and drive our own wagon west for the gold 🙂

        2. Jevon

          Almost all of the great public transit systems in the world were originally private ventured, London and Paris as well.Canada is doing its own thinking about what to do to stimulate the economy in the next few years and the federal government here has been pushing public transit very heavily. I hope some of that goes to the bigger cities like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver who need to upgrade transit badly.

      2. kidmercury

        i think it could be privatized like andy said, though i can see potential problems with that and how this might regrettably be one of those things govt actually should get involved with. but the federal govt is broken. beyond broken, they’re a pack of criminals, practically out in the open now. wish this was a local govt movement, or even a states thing. the feds shouldn’t be doing anything but downsizing IMO. curiously they’re the only sector of the US economy that is not downsizing. depressions are a bull market for feds!

  10. Guest

    “we know that congress is susceptible to being lobbied successfully by people, institutions, cities, states, and corporations. So I’m quite worried that this $550bn is not going to get spent in the right ways because it’s seen as a big pot of money to get your hands on.”This is the whole point…. this is why big government never works. If people in government could make smart financial decisions it would be a completely different ball game. But they can’t, and recession after recession you liberal guys think “it’s okay the government will save us.” good luck.

    1. fredwilson

      Please don’t make this out as another liberal vs conservative debate. The conservatives fucked us over pretty good too it seems

      1. andyswan

        What conservatives? 🙂

      2. Brian Lord

        Agreed! It seems like there is no liberal or conservative in our government anymore.

      3. Jevon

        I was kindof feeling him until the “you liberal guys” bit. Why do people think that adds to the conversation?

  11. Shane

    The bailout culture pervasive in Washington today is sickening. In my opinion, the 24 hour news cycle has taken a crisis and multiplied it many times over. From my perspective, there is no reason to create such a massive infrastructure spending plan because unemployment is less than 10%. You must remember that when FDR enacted his public works spending, unemployment was nearly 25%. I mean, honestly, no laid off stockbroker is going to take a job digging ditches.I believe that the entire country needs a lesson in economics, and that is we must continue to circulate money throughout the system. That means that we should continue to go out to eat at night, but pass on dessert, or order the house wine instead of the premium. This is what Obama needs to do, get up and tell the country that by completely shutting their pocketbooks, the economy will die no matter what the government tries to do. The scarcity mentality propagated by the media is stifling, and their continued use of the Dow Jones Industrial average as a barometer of the economy is exacerbating this downturn.

    1. fredwilson

      I totally agree that the obsessive focus on stock prices is terrible. Not just the dow but also individual stocks like citibank and GM

  12. martinowen

    I would have thought that the knee-jerk reaction from some quarters that public and socialised action is automatically bad, corrupt and inefficient is a bit rich these days. Quite clearly our friends in investment banking got is sooo right over the past few years – not to mention all the MBA’s working in the auto industry – they really know how to make the best decisions.

    1. Guest

      Amen!However, this is not exactly a failure of the free market in its classical form. It’s a failure of the corrupt recent implementation, where profits are privatized and losses are socialized. If these investment bankers and MBAs were putting a good chunk of their personal net worth on the line (as Fred Wilson is doing with USV), the results would have been quite different.Best,

  13. fredwilson

    There’s truth in what you say

    1. Josh Morgan

      I would also agree…except for this whole nonsense that tax cuts don’t work to jumpstart the economy or “starve the beast.” After the Bush ’03 tax cut, government coffers swelled. The same could be said for when Reagan had his tax cut(s) passed.Frankly, the capital gains taxs needs to be eliminated. Investments in companies, tech, infrastructure by the private enterprise would boom. Also, the estate tax nonsense needs to be quashed. The government spends more money on the collection of the estate tax than the tax brings in. It only exists for political pandering.History has shown tax cuts, not tax rebate checks, not government projects enable sustainable growth. When the govnt money runs out of money for projects for “infrastructure”…then what happens? I can see it now, a thousand “Big Dig’s” across the country. In the words of John Boehner, “Oh, my God.”

      1. Erik S.

        When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, doesn’t it?At this point, no one is talking about rebate checks (what a bogus idea, in any season) or government projects to enable sustainable growth, they are talking about them to pull us out of a deep recession that could turn into a global depression.That’s not to say that government projects are guaranteed to drag us out of this mess, because, lets face it, we’re are long on ideology and short on experience when it comes to this sort of thing.People will legitimately debate the role of Roosevelt’s programs in pulling us out of the great depression. I think a better question is whether they kept a bunch of people in this country from either starving to death or killing each other. I think the answer is yes, and i think that’s a good thing. This country couldn’t have made a difference in WWII if we’d been mired in some form of civil war or institutional collapse, and we couldn’t have roared out of it either.Before we can start climbing, we need to pull out of this dive. Let’s focus on that.

        1. fredwilson

          I like that last point and reblogged that part of your comment

  14. Ivan Kirigin

    This isn’t the first proposal for spending in the hundreds of billions that is abused. The recent energy and transportation bills come to mind, as does the huge amount spent on defense contracting and R&D every year. I worked for iRobot, one of the most innovative companies in the defense industry. Pigs at a trough is a great way to describe the whole Government & Industrial Division that makes the PackBot.To say people need to be more selfless really ignores how business is run. Today. Companies aren’t selfless. They have an obligation to make profits. It isn’t immoral that they come when the opportunity presents itself. It is normal.Getting republicans on board with a nod to tax cuts, while growing government by leaps and bounds, is unprincipled. Tax cuts are only good in so far as they “starve the beast”, and force reducing the size of government. If they only increase our debt obligation in the very near term, they do little.I think the cheapest way to stimulate the economy is regulatory reform. Lots can happen at the FCC and other departments that could stimulate growth through removing barriers to innovation, rather than throwing money at projects.I might also add that spending our way out of a recession, at the current state of credit worthiness of our government, is not only a bad idea, but has not a hint of change. Someone coming to power promising to throw someone else’s money at a problem is depressingly common.

  15. pascal bouvier

    businesses are selfish. individuals are selfish. both need to be in order to survive. then comes, hopefully, a transformation to selflessness. once one has survived and thrived, one tunes up the selfless gene to help others. probably does not happen that linearly but there is truth to that process. hence selfish vs selflessness is not really the issue, but how one switches from one to the other. getting back to bailout plans and how they get bogged down in congress. congress as a whole cannot switch to selflessness mode. congress members are constantly in selfish mode, trying to survive the next election. what will it take to change that. i suspect, regulatory changes, and transparency. transparency is a big one imho. and any initiative that makes it clearer where the money goes, where it comes from, who votes on what, who talks to whom, and how that data gets shared with citizens may eventually change behaviors. especially when regulation also changes – especially with campaign reform, lobbyist relations…

    1. fredwilson

      If legislators were limited to one term, would they be more selfless andless selfish?

      1. Riaz Kanani

        Difficult to say. Some country somewhere must have tried it.On the plus it might make people be more selfless. On the negative there would not be enough time to achieve much and it would not be very efficient since too much time would be taken catching up on what the previous occupant did before being able to do anything themselves.If we could make decision making quicker and reduce the beurocracy then it might be ok. or if you could unite the entire public sector behind a positive and self governing ethos that rejects greed and selfishness then that in itself would work much better and the length of term becomes a mute point.I’m tempted to say that pigs might fly.. but it is always worth aiming high.

  16. it doesn't matter

    It’s true what you said. Lots of people are going to try to argue with you and think, blah blah blah. But you are right. I don’t always agree with you, but you are right on this one.

  17. glenn kentwell

    “It’s like we are pigs eating from a trough. The US is going to be totally screwed if this $550bn is spent on everyone’s pet projects. It has to be spent on the projects that will deliver the biggest bang for the buck in terms of future economic activity.”The greater good? Are you some kind of communist?

    1. fredwilson

      yup, a venture communist

  18. Gabriel Griego

    You’re right Fred, but it’s a higher ideal than most people can handle, and generally speaking, their genetics won’t allow them to think any other way. We’ve risen to the top of the food chain on this planet, in a relatively short amount of time, by being both highly competitive and intelligent. We’ve evolved into our planet’s greatest competitors, and it starts at the individual level. Unfortunately we live in a closed system, and we will eventually have to figure out how to cooperate or we’re going to ruin our planet and our species in an even shorter amount of time. There are signs that we are moving towards being more cooperative, and technology is certainly helping in that regard. I just hope we can figure it out qucikly enough to make a difference.

    1. fredwilson


  19. slowblogger

    I want to be rich. Am I greedy? What is greed?

  20. slowblogger

    There are 10 people with 10 different needs. There are 100 people with some money to invest in.1. They vote on which project to do. (Or a committee decides.) And all 100 people have to invest in the picked project whether they like it or not.2. There is no voting. Each can pitch the project and raise fund. The people with money can invest in any project they like.The first one is called politics and the second market. I prefer market. And I believe people will be more honest with it. Of course, there are cases where government could be more effective. Therefore minimize, not remove, the government.

  21. andyswan

    They’ll say that about airlines one day 🙂

    1. Jevon

      If any more airlines join StarAlliance, we will be left with a single global airline anyway!

  22. John Ball

    Spot on Fred!What really screws me into the ceiling is to hear that many of my “friends,” with historical success in business, see this as a challenge to beat the system.For me, I can’t recall or more poignant light shining on what seems to have become simple personal greed ahead of any responsibility.The horse appears to have left the barn as I recently witnessed Cerberus partners rubbing their hands together in glee since TARP will feed the firm a few billion through their investment in Chrysler Financial. Private equity; staunch supporters of the free hand, standing at the trough.In keeping with the theme, “Wise is the man who plants the seed of a tree whose shade he will never sit under,”

  23. fredwilson


  24. fredwilson


  25. Jeff

    “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” – Alexis de Toucqueville

  26. jeffiel

    I’ve been thinking about how a small portion of this money could be use for venture capital… it’s a pretty direct way to generate economic growth, job growth and would represent an investment in our technological leadership role. Startups are “shovel-ready” and are generally low overhead. Naturally, Fred… you would run the federal VC firm…

    1. fredwilson

      VC is corruptible too. There are many VC firms that have been put inbusiness by state govt¹s with the mandate to invest in job creation. I don¹tthink any of them have produced a positive return.

  27. Dan Blank

    Great points, though, tell that to the 3 people hoping to get a job at the vineyard if money is earmarked for them! 🙂

  28. Dan Blank

    Thanks – feel free!

  29. fredwilson

    Exactimundo mark