Recall that old Catholic list of the “Seven Deadly Sins”: pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. This list actually goes back to the writings of Evagrius and Cassian, and then it became kind of institutionalized in ecclesial thought and practice. Originally it was just meant to organize and categorize the various drives in the human heart that plague us, and not only drag us down spiritually but even undermine our very humanity. The list is not arbitrarily arranged; the “worst” sin is listed first and then the others in order. It is interesting that greed is considered so potent in its evil dynamics. But none of the classic authors was able to map out the full play of greed in the human reality, or even see how it can be lurking disguised in what seems like acceptable social dynamics. But one thing for sure, when they did smell the reality, they called it for what it was: evil.
The famous words in the title above were spoken by fictional character Gordon Geckko in the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street. Although the story is fictional, it very much reflected the Wall Street realities of the ‘80s. But if you look deeper perhaps you will see the more universal underlying theme of the story: how greed infects not only the economic and social fabric of our society but also the very depths of the human heart. If you think that story is dated, “so ‘80s,” or simply reflecting an anamoly, try these stories, of more recent vintage and reflecting more recent situations: Margin Call, Boiler Room, The Wolf of Wall Street, Barbarians at the Gates, The Big Short, and a number of others.
Now, while greed becomes clearly manifest in the economic sectors of our society, it is a much more prevalent condition of our humanity. The vision articulated by Gecko is that greed is a driving force in human evolution—“it’s what makes us tick.” It’s what makes us move “forward,” whatever that means. It is who we are at our best. Here we have gone a long way from our ancient ancestors!
Consider the following actual occurrence: a group of mountain climbers with their Sherpa helpers approached a Buddhist lama for a blessing. This is a usual practice for an expedition trying to summit one of the Himalayan peaks—the Sherpas will not climb without that blessing. This lama surprised them with these words: Climbing is a form of greed. Not at all obvious how that is so, but these words would have been well understood by our ancient Desert Fathers—the lama saw something in what was motivating them.
This points us to a much bigger reflection on “greed” and its impact on our humanity. But for now let us stick to the more visible economic manifestations. Let’s take a look at two terms: “accumulation of wealth,” and “the market.” The accumulation of wealth is widely considered and assumed to be an unquestionable good, the so-called “American Dream.” To some it seems that the accumulation of wealth is the whole point of life; something in tune with the great Aristotelian and classical axiom: every human being pursues his/her good. So if one slips in the idea that wealth is a true good in itself (so therefore “more” is “better”), then presto, the accumulation of wealth, more and more, greed, is a natural dynamic that fulfills one’s humanity. And the market (capitalism really) facilitates that. One cannot overstate how much this is the modern global vision, especially in the modern West.
But greed runs against another current in the human community: the seeking of the common good—a central concept, by the way in Catholic Social Thought. When we seek the common good, we seek the well-being, the enhancement of all in the community, not just our own. And if we push this to the Buddhist vision, we will be seeking the good of all creatures, all beings. The community we belong to is quite large! Of course we do seek our own good also, but if we have a clear vision of who we are and what this includes, this seeking will never be simply for us as isolated individuals. Our interdependence and interrelatedness means that our “wealth” is never simply “ours.” In modern social life, especially in the U.S., these two contrasting currents work against each other and the result is incoherence and dysfunctionality and its effects are increasing and becoming more apparent.
Let’s consider some concrete cases.
Let’s start with the recent Texas catastrophe. Many suffered from the extreme weather, but the worst was to come: power outages and failed water supplies. This especially affected poor and middleclass folk. But some well-to-do people did quite well. Note the story below:
Texas is one of this country’s most deregulated states in regard to energy. The Republicans who have run the state for decades are the “apostles of deregulation”—meaning they don’t want any government agency, especially
“them socialist bureaucrats in Washington” to limit their ability to make money on energy. But that’s now how deregulation is presented—they will tell you that everyone will benefit from the competition among many providers and in regulation, the government sets limits on who can and can’t be an energy provider and how much they can charge. They will tell you that prices under that system will be artificially high; but the “free market” would correct that. And this same argument is pulled out for other sectors of the economy. It has a slight grain of truth in it, that’s why it’s so seductive; but it is also seriously flawed. But my main point is that in that word “deregulation” you will find deeply concealed the pure reality of greed. It is the American way, these folks will tell you, the “freedom” to make as much money as possible. The market allows you to charge as much as “the market will bear,” so they say—meaning you try to get as much as you can from the buyer. Getting back to the Texas situation, Paul Krugman analyzed in the NY Times how things went wrong in Texas:
And even the Wall Street Journal pointed out that Texas electric bills were $28 billion higher since 2004 because of deregulation.
And then this story appeared in the Washington Post: (This is just the beginning of the story)
As Texans went without heat, light or water, some companies scored a big payday
Windfall profits are likely to total billions of dollars
Will Englund and
Neena Satija Feb. 27, 2021 at 5:00 a.m. PST
“As millions of Texans went days without heat, light or water, as store shelves were emptied, as deaths blamed on the cold began to add up, Texas’ frenzied and deregulated electricity market opened the door for some companies to reap windfalls that may mount into the billions of dollars.
The nation’s most deregulated energy economy was supposed to be a win for consumers and for energy companies nimble enough to do business in a bustling, cacophonous market. But the cold snap — rare but by no means unprecedented — shattered it last week, plunging consumers into misery and leaving a badly prepared and dislocated energy sector in pieces.
“This is the classic definition of market failure,” said Aneesh Prabhu, an analyst with S&P.
Wholesale prices for electricity spiked 300-fold, and for natural gas almost as much, and when supplies dwindled firms that had some of either commodity to sell were in line for tremendous short-term profits. But other companies are looking at stupendous losses.”
This is sometimes called “economic Darwinism”: the survival of the fittest, never mind the human toll that takes.
But this is merely scratching the surface of the problem. Every sector of our social life is affected by our legitimizing of greed through our economic philosophy. Consider the public myopia that seems to prefer a “healthcare-for-profit” system. A society that values the common good would not treat healthcare as a commodity to “sell” in order to increase wealth. Seems there is almost nothing in our society that can’t be commodified. Even higher education—in Germany it’s all free for everyone, and in many other countries it’s dirt cheap. Of course the liberal contingent of our country softens or
disguises the roughness and toll of this mad dash for profits through various mechanisms. But most Democrats and all Republicans refuse to leave this “for-profit” approach to healthcare where costs are going up every year. So we got Obamacare and now Biden has his own adjustments. These merely try to cushion the toll this approach takes rather than unmasking the hard reality and dismantling it. Take a look at the story below.
Another, more radical, proposal that few seem to appreciate is a universal basic income. It means that every person would get a certain amount from the government once they are 21. Like about a $1000 a month. Several European countries are experimenting with this idea. The big outcry against this and the other common good proposals is the rant: Who Will Pay for THIS? Indeed. If something is truly an important element of the common good, then in fact we all should share in paying for it. This is called taxation. The reason this won’t work in the U.S. is that we have a tax structure that favors and rewards greed. Not too long ago the billionaire Warren Buffet said there’s something wrong when his secretary pays more in taxes than he does. The fact is that the top tax rate is only 34% and the fact is that no wealthy person (or corporation) pays
even close to that because of all kinds of legal loopholes and deductions built into it to protect wealth (by comparison the Scandinavian countries take a much bigger chunk with no loopholes).
All Republicans and many Democrats (the so-called “moderates”) are proponents of “lower taxes.” A large part of the population has been brainwashed into believing this myth that lower taxes will enhance economic activity and benefit all. Very recently there was a massive study released which, not surprisingly, has not been widely discussed. It debunks this myth thoroughly, and unmasks this right-wing gospel of wealth accumulation as a path to a community’s well-being. It merely leads to a greater and greater economic inequality. The links to various version of this story are below:
How bad can this greed get? Take a look at this story:
The fact is that while the majority of people suffered to varying degrees during the pandemic, the top 1% did quite well. After the 2017 tax cut, the top 400 earners in the country paid a tax rate lower than the working class. We have basically evolved into a plutocracy, rule by the wealthy….the greedy.
The reason this “gospel” has held sway over our public thinking is a sinister combination of problems. The general populace has been brainwashed into seeing this mechanism of greed as an integral part of the “American Dream,” “what being free means,”etc. If someone running for office proposed the raising of taxes, even if it’s only for the higher income folk, they will immediately be labeled as “radical socialists,” “radical leftists,” even communists, etc. Their chances of getting elected are slim to none; that’s why so many who do sense the problem settle for these half-baked solutions that simply ameliorate a raw naked push to put greed at the heart of our communal lives. And we see so many people resist fighting climate change because it infringes on what is perceived as a God-given right to make as much money as possible. No politician dare ask people to make some sacrifices to save the planet. So we have to settle on inadequate measures that allow people to make money in fighting climate change….that’s the only way to get many of the corporations to support fighting climate change.
But, as I said previously, there are countercurrents in our social and economic lives that reveals what we could really be like. Back again to Texas and this example: a supermarket of shoppers, not for luxury items but for food, and suddenly the power goes out. I was once in such a situation as a shopper myself, and we all had to leave our baskets in place and walk out of the building. No one could pay for anything, so everything had to stay in place. Well, this store handled it differently. They let everyone out with the food supplies they needed without having to pay. They simply said, “Have a nice day!” Here is the story:
This is only one example of probably very many acts of sacrifice, of sharing, of focusing on something more than one’s own “wealth.”
Recall Dr. Jonas Salk, the doctor who invented and developed the polio vaccine, the scourge of the early ‘50s. He could have patented this vaccine and made millions, but he refused. He saw it as an important contribution to the common good of all humanity, not a profit making thing.
Then, on a bigger scale, there is an alternative vision and a movement developing globally—because the whole planet is at stake due to climate change—which says that there actually is a different way of being a flourishing society than by enabling raw greed. There was a story about this on CNBC:
This Degrowth movement has a strong voice in this website from Germany (in English):
This is their answer to what is Degrowth:
“Degrowth is an idea that critiques the global capitalist system which pursues growth at all costs, causing human exploitation and environmental destruction. The degrowth movement of activists and researchers advocates for societies that prioritize social and ecological well-being instead of corporate profits, over-production and excess consumption. This requires radical redistribution, reduction in the material size of the global economy, and a shift in common values towards care, solidarity and autonomy. Degrowth means transforming societies to ensure environmental justice and a good life for all within planetary boundaries.”
And I would like to conclude with one of my favorite people on the internet: Walking Womad. She is a young lady who truly has taken “the road less traveled.” She has hiked many of the great trails around the world, but it’s her actual everyday life that lifts my spirits. Here is the link to her website:
And here is a very apt self-description:
“In normal (not sure what that means!?) life I studied Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Archaeology (Assyriology to be exact… Yes I am a freak!) and Social Work with specializations in Animal Assisted Therapy (with llamas and alpacas), Public Health and Outdoor- and Wilderness Education. My partner Dan and I run a wilderness school, where we teach and offer wilderness-, outdoor- and ancestral skills, nature connection and rites of passage. We live in a tiny cabin in the middle of the woods and fields. No running water, no electricity, no bathroom, instead we get fresh air, meet wild animals and hear the song of the wind in the pine trees.”
And of course there are numerous small monastic-type of communities and quiet people who are experimenting with a more responsible stewardship over the earth. Our larger society, however, relies too much on a lie and that does not bode well for the future.