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How Do You Fix Greed? Part II: American Society Is Built for Greed

Society and culture

Recently I posted about the emotional roots of greed–that is, some reasons we sometimes act or think greedily. Today I want to pick up where I left off and talk about how we’ve gotten ourselves in trouble with greed as a society and what we’d need to do to if we want to root it out.

It would be great if greed were a simple problem, but it appears that it has at least five different parts.

  1. We already talked about where greed comes from individually, the emotional component in Part I of this series.
  2. We have a culture where greed is not only OK, but encouraged.
  3. The effects of how we use money are hidden.
  4. Most of the organizations that handle money in our society are set up to maximize profit.
  5. Laws and regulations about taxation, corporations, and commerce in some cases make greed the law.

Our Greedy Culture
Rich people in our culture tend to be admired, and poor people tend to be looked down on. We tend to think of wealth and success as being closely related, and the role models we see in the media are usually people with a lot of money. This isn’t unique to Americans or particularly shocking, but it is harmful. If we can gradually focus more on people’s accomplishments, integrity, regard for other people, happiness, and personal fulfillment instead of their cars, houses, financial resources, and lifestyle, we’ll move toward justice and compassion as a society and away from celebrity worship and the quest to Have More Stuff.

But it’s hard to change who we envy. If offered the choice between becoming as a balanced and compassionate as the Dalai Lama or as rich as Bill Gates, which would you choose? I’d have a really difficult time with that challenge, I have to admit. When I think of having huge financial resources, I imagine how many of the things in my life that currently take a lot of effort would be much easier, how much good I could do, what great things I could get for my family, and so on. I don’t necessarily think about the complications that come with money or the disparity between the wealth I’d have and the poverty a lot of people live through day after day. I also have a lot of trouble weighing the benefits of being as happy and at peace as the Dalai Lama appears to be against the seemingly more obvious benefits of having tons of cash. Even those of us who work hard at staying out of the consumerist mindset can get hung up on this problem–but that’s exactly the kind of conscious change that will help us transform our culture’s attitudes toward greed.

Hidden impacts of our money decisions
We rarely see the help or harm that comes from our investing or spending. It’s very hard to know exactly who gets our money or what they do with it when we buy something or make an investment. It’s possible be an ardent anti-tobacco activist and to unknowingly have a retirement account that invests heavily in the tobacco industry, for instance. We may buy a product and not know how much of the money we spent goes to people who worked to get us the thing in the first place, how much to investors, and how much to parasites (like corrupt government officials in the country where the thing was made or speculators). It’s even harder to get a clear idea of our money’s impact on things like the environment or the availability of good jobs.

Even when we do know something about the impact of our money–for instance, buying a cheap electronic item made in China at a local Walmart, which is likely to be supporting underpaid labor both in the factory where the item is made and at the Walmart where it’s sort–we often don’t act on it, probably in part because we can’t be sure we’re right. Maybe those Chinese workers are really getting paid a living wage. Or even if they aren’t, maybe the money they are getting paid is better than what would happen to them if that job moved to a country where people get paid fairly for their work.

By not knowing the real effects our financial choices have in the rest of the world, we’re cut off from making better choices. Ideally, whenever I wanted to buy or sell or rent or borrow or lend or invest, I could get a little scorecard that showed me how much good or ill my choice was making all the way down the line to people, places, and organizations. In practice, that’s probably next to impossible (though in a few decades we might have enough information available electronically that something like that would be possible). However, we can educate ourselves about where the things we buy come from, where our investments go, and all the rest. We might not know the exact details of every purchase we make, but any insight empowers us to make decisions with our money that otherwise would be made for us by somebody else.

Designed for profit
Usually, companies are set up by investors or entrepreneurs who are trying to make a bunch of money. While they might have other priorities, money usually comes first. The penniless immigrant chef who starts with a sandwich cart that grows over time to a restaurant and then a chain of restaurants is probably cooking at least in part out of a love of cooking, a desire to do work that’s valued, and all the rest, but  … well, I was about to say “the bottom line is still profit,” but that’s what “the bottom line” means. The need for profit has come to be central even in how we talk about what’s important. We can even things like “The bottom line is that a lot of people don’t have adequate healthcare coverage” without realizing we’re being ironic.

What’s the alternative? Different kinds of organizations: fewer entrepreneurial start-ups and money-worshipping corporations and more non-profits and cooperatives. I’ll grant you, this doesn’t solve everything itself. For example, the health insurance I had up until a year or two ago was run by a not-for-profit, and yet it was terrible. Still, organizations like my local food co-op and the credit union where I bank show that these kinds of organizations can be reliable and successful without anyone trying to turn them into little money factories.

Greed is the law
Like a lot of things that have become part of our culture, greed has naturally made its way into our laws as well. Probably the biggest example of this kind of legislation is that for-profit corporations are legally required in many situations to maximize short-term shareholder profits, and corporations are also treated as individuals with legal rights of their own, just like a person.

Laws won’t change much until the culture does, but laws that make profit sacred get in the way of cultural change away from greed. There are only two ways I know of to get out of a bind like this: one of them is to make improvements wherever possible and gradually drag the legal system along with the priorities of the people it governs. The other is for there to be a huge catastrophe that ruins everything we’ve built so that we have to go back and start over.

I favor the first approach.

In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about ways we can take greed out of businesses.

Photo by Michael Aston


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