Giving Greed A Bad Name

Greed is an essential lubricant of the market economy. We are so locked into the market economy that it is difficult for us to imagine any other system in which greed is not the lubricating oil. Webster defines the noun greed as a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than needed. Until recently our market economy was in constant pursuit of more : more money, more profit, more return for investors.

Greed fuels emotions as well as the economy. Greed can cause feelings of anger, despair and resentment if the constant quest for more overshadows all other areas of life. It is probably with a sense of bemusement that we read about the indigenous peoples of the northwest coast of the United States and Canada who regularly held ceremonial feasts called potlatch during which tribal leaders competed in gift-giving. The more one gave away, the more prestige one gained. At one potlatch, an indigenous chief not only fed several hundred guests during the two-week long ceremony, but also distributed to them 18,000 blankets, 700 carved bracelets, one dozen canoes, sewing machines, outboard motors, pots and pans, clothing, and hundreds of sacks of flour, sugar, fruit and other food. What a way to vanquish ones competitors and level the playing field!

The potlatch was a way of redistributing wealth, although such competitive generosity now seems so quaint. Today's potluck, the communal sharing of a meal with all participants providing something, is the modern day descendant of the potlatch.

The current global financial crisis underlines the importance of emotions in every part of our lives, including the economic part. Behind the cold statistical analyses of the economists, emotions play a very important role. People expressed their reaction to the financial crash not only in terms of billions lost but in terms of trust lost, betrayal, panic and despair. Away from the stock exchange floor, it seems that the market is driven more by fear and greed than by scientific calculations.

Most people can easily detect negative emotions in themselves : anger, fear, envy and jealousy. But many have a blind spot when it comes to greed. The catechism lists the capital sins as pride, avarice (greed), envy, wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth. Even though greed is one of these seven sins, it was seldom preached about. There is in society a tacit assumption that because greed keeps the market buzzing, we all benefit from it. But in the wake of this current crisis, greed suddenly became a term of abuse and moral indignation to be hurled at top-rung executives of financial and insurance corporations.

Yet in spite of all this righteous anger, there was no clear consensus about what exactly greed is. Sure it can be defined as an excessive desire to acquire wealth beyond ones need : especially when such accumulation of wealth is at the expense of others' welfare. But the devil is in the details When is a desire excessive? Is your neighbor's desire for a new boat excessive while your desire for a larger house is not? Is desire "excessive" only when applied to others and not us?

Most people who are connected to the market economy desire to make as much money as possible. If their behavior is not criminal they argue that any negative consequence on others' welfare is simply the natural outcome of competition. Football and other sporting competitions reinforce this competitive spirit: Winning is what counts. Do we not admire the spunk of a brash undergraduate who declares he will be a millionaire by the age of 25?

Before this financial crisis, people were aware of the fantastically high salaries and bonuses given to the heads of big companies. Yet far from condemning them for being greedy, ordinary people envied them for their good fortune, skills or connections. Operating with impunity for decades, Bernie Madoff stole millions of dollars from investors with his ponzi scheme. While the market fluctuated, Madoff's investments seemed only to increase. In retrospect it is easy to see the implausibility of investments posting nothing but substantial gains for decades. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel's Foundation For Humanity lost $37 million due to Madoff's greed. How many people could that $37 million have helped? Although they were not investors, these people not assisted by Wiesel's foundation due to its financial losses were also victims of Madoff's greed as well.

According to the New Testament (Colossians 3:5), greed is a form of idolatry, a kind of worship of the golden calf. Apart from joining the chorus of blame and condemnation, does religion provide any guidance on how to educate people not to be greedy? Most religions teach that it is a gross mistake to connect material wealth with personal happiness. In doing so, they confirm the studies showing that beyond providing a basic level of material comfort; greater wealth does not create greater happiness.

During prayer we may be temporarily convinced that the rich person is the one who is satisfied with what he/she has, and that the greedy person always wants more. But it is clear that if such attitudes became widespread, our consumer society would be undermined while economic activity and the Gross Domestic Product would slow down.

A Christian response to widespread greed demands that we be counter-cultural and work against the attitudes that seem natural. This requires a revolution in our thinking similar to the one begun by Saint Francis of Assisi who urged us to cultivate gratitude. Happiness doesn't come as a result of acquiring more but as a result of being grateful for what we do have. Strangely, people are not grateful because they are happy; they are happy because they are grateful. The people receiving canoes, food supplies and blankets at the potlatch experienced happiness with their new gifts.

Sharing a potluck meal with family, friends and faith communities is more about breaking bread together and supporting one another than worrying about whether or not all the dinner plates match. There is real happiness and gratitude in sharing a meal with people not only for the meal, but also for the company at the table.

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