Monday, October 01, 2012

Greed

I've been thinking more about greed lately. What it is. How it develops. What good it can do. What harm it can do.
Wikipedia has a definition of greed I find satisfactory :
Greed is the inordinate desire to possess wealth, goods, or objects of abstract value with the intention to keep it for one's self, far beyond the dictates of basic survival and comfort. It is applied to a markedly high desire for and pursuit of wealth, status, and power.

As a secular psychological concept, greed is, similarly, an inordinate desire to acquire or possess more than one needs. It is typically used to criticize those who seek excessive material wealth, although it may apply to the need to feel more excessively moral, social, or otherwise better than someone else.
Now we've been down this path once before, and as one commenter pointed out, the problem with definitions like that lies in determining what equals "more than one needs." None of us has a crystal ball or other tool that definitively answers that question for every other person. But that doesn't mean we can't still discuss greed.
First let's begin perhaps by agreeing that the concept of "greed" is a social construct, and what's seen as greedy in one culture might not be in another. At the moment, I'm concerned with "greed" in America, and in particular how it informs the national debate we're having about whether raising taxes on the wealthy is our best path toward economic growth or whether cutting taxes on the wealthy is our best path toward economic growth.
OK, so given it's a social construct,  I think part of the answer to what equals "more than one needs" in the US can be found in how poor people are generally not viewed as "greedy" here, per se. Lazy perhaps, entitled or willing to take advantage of other people, but not "greedy." Of course, while it's clearly unfair to paint all poor people (many of whom work backbreaking jobs...jobs that someone has to perform...that simply don't pay that much) as "lazy," by the very definition of "greed" (inordinate desire to possess ... far beyond the dictates of basic survival and comfort), in the context of considering that we do have poor people in the US (those who are struggling to acquire the basics required for survival and comfort), it is possible to consider examples that might clarify what constitutes "more than one needs." 
For example, if you have a family of four and only have guests three times a year and only two at a time, an 8-bedroom house is "more than you need" by any reasonable standard. Of course, inheriting an 8-bedroom house doesn't make you greedy, but an inordinate desire to posses one you don't have, in this context, probably does. But even that isn't what most people think of when we say someone is "greedy."  Buying a bigger house than you need is not such an affront to others.

Generally, in the US, the degree of inordinate desire for "more than one needs" has to be somewhat obnoxious or so out of proportion with what others have for us to consider it "greedy." When CEOs make 231 times more their average workers, for instance, we have perhaps a clearer case example to consider:
[T]he pay gap between U.S. CEOs and rank-and-file workers is higher than anywhere else in the developed world. And it has been accelerating over the last few decades. In 1965, the U.S. CEO-to-worker compensation ratio was roughly 20 to 1.
Here are some additional stats to put the oh! in CEO:
  • 725%: That's how much average CEO compensation increased between 1978 and 2011, according to EPI.
  • 5.7%: That’s how much the average worker’s compensation increased over the same period
I know the incentives theory. That CEOs who deliver are worth their salaries. I just happen to agree with Joseph Stiglitz who noted that a CEO whose take home pay is only $10,000,000 is probably not going to be noticeably less motivated to deliver for his company than one whose take home pay is $12,000,000. There are limits to the logic that high CEO salaries benefit us all.
The CEO salary example begins to explains for me why being "greedy" seems such a bad thing to many of us. It's not just the wealth inequality brought about by the illogical increase in salaries for CEOs, but how that translates into opportunities or realities for everyone else. It is the way the person with the inordinate desire to posses more than they need behaves that makes it that much tougher on the rest of us to achieve what we more modestly desire to possess. 
By gobbling up as much of the pie as they can, they leave less for the rest of us, and eventually pit us against each other for the crumbs. When working class and middle-class people resent the meager salaries that teachers make, for example, I believe you can point directly at "greedy" behavior by others as the source of that absurdity. Did teachers see a 725% increase in their compensation over the past 33 years?
Consider this an open thread on greed and its implications in the coming election.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

we Need rEvolution

10/01/2012 02:22:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

If returning to the saner more balanced policies that issued in steady growth from the end of WWII up until Reagan represents "rEvolution" then I'm all for it.

10/01/2012 02:26:00 PM  
Blogger Cyndi Calhoun said...

I admit, it's hard living in a society that seems rather driven to have things...and you make a conscious decision to not have things. But, you gave me an idea for a blog post later today! :)

10/01/2012 03:17:00 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

I don't care to comment on political implications but would like to shine a light on all the gambling casino customers of very modest means and all the meth purchased by people with deprived children. Are those people greedy? I believe they are. I think greed is part of the human condition.

10/01/2012 09:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Seth Tane said...

A look at the compensation levels in the contemporary fine arts yields similar disparities to the CEO stats: can you imagine the beneficial results of watering the gardens of the throngs of artists and arts workers who toil for a miniscule fraction of what the superstars get ? Is a $10M painting worth (aside from its speculative value) that much more that a $50K or $5K painting ? Pity that a tiny portion of the "top" can't be used to fertilize the "bottom"...I know it would go a long way in my studio, and that is not being greedy !

10/01/2012 10:32:00 PM  
Blogger Stefano W. Pasquini said...

I think you're all being greedy in trying to get too much attention and too many comments here. And yes, Ed, you are a modern day communist.

10/02/2012 03:57:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

"modern day communist"

If by that we mean someone who believes in working hard to get ahead, but that coupled with that comes responsibility to leave the world a little better than you found it, who never forgets their debt to those who came before them and understands how that obligates them to those who come after, who don't believe the success they meet, no matter how modest or great, is due entirely to their innate superiority and that their greatest duty is to ensure equal opportunity for posterity, then guilty as charged.

To me, though, that just makes me an old-fashioned American

10/02/2012 08:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Random Thoughts

Were all Greedy Fucks.

Bad money drives out Good Money.

The Federal Goverment is captured by every major industry in America.

How much would a university education cost if the federal goverment didnt subsidize it?

Why does a farmer in the Imperial Valley need a Lear Jet?

The Colorado River never reaches the Sea.

Most people in Washington are educated beyond their own Intelligence and don't know the difference between right and wrong.

The 99% who were given free money and walked away from their obligations during the housing boom and bust are just as responsible as the bankers who were ordered to make the loans.

With out all goverment props we would have true price discovery.
and all the bad would be flushed out and a lot of short term pain.

Theres no free lunch .

and free trade is not free.

Why health care is so expensive.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRn9ySc-RDM



10/03/2012 12:29:00 PM  
Anonymous artist said...

It seems we have lost, or never had, any understanding of human nature. People are greedy, or can be when left to run amok - wall street - they will gobble up whatever they can. And you can't blame capitalism. I've lived in a communist country, there the greed just gets squeezed up to the few a the top but it is still there and effects everyone just the same. We used to have religion to try and curb the detrimental aspects of human nature but we can't have that now, if you believe in a higher power you are seen as stupid these days. We will always have greed, how we deal with it is what matters.

11/03/2012 09:51:00 PM  

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