Impulse: Greed

This essay is the first in a series of five essays. Please consider this basic life principle; there are some inward impulses that work against us. Thinking about this for several years and making more mistakes than I want to admit, it seems that these are the primary inward impulses that give us the most trouble: they are greed, pride, lust, envy and fear. These often start as subtle impulses in the heart, yet they are the underlying motivations for less than desirable behavior, anxiety and desperation, and poor decisions that really mess things up for us. 

In this essay we will weigh in on the impulse of greed. We are pretty good at recognizing greed in others but not so good at recognizing greed in ourselves. Greed does not always land someone in jail for financial crimes. Although, sometimes it does. Greed does not always seed a home environment where the children are left to fend for themselves because mom and dad are to busy seeking the good life in the name of familial security and opportunity. Although, sometimes it does. Greed does not always manifest itself in the way we treat employees, colleagues, and business partners squeezing every ounce of productivity out of them, viewing people we work with as merely human capital. But sometimes it does. For most of us greed is more subtle.

My wife Cynthia, went to a mega church rally in a sports arena near our home at the request of family members. The gist of the sermon was how that God’s people deserve to be wealthy and are even entitled to it. During the sermon my wife did not feel comfortable to say the least. As she walk out of the arena there was a homeless person asking for help right outside the door. People were bursting out the doors with alacrity, breezing past this desperate soul without even acknowledging him no less giving him a token gift of generosity. I’m sure most of the attendees placed something in the offering plate that night to further enrich or at least enhance the profile of the prosperity messenger who lives in a 17,000 square foot mansion, and has an estimated net worth of over 40 million dollars as of this writing.

Church leaders should be well paid for blessing us at a scale comparable with high level corporate managers and small business owners. I heard someone say, that successful preachers could have done anything in life. This writer for one believes this is mostly true. Nonetheless, inordinate monetary compensation that we too frequently read about online or hear about in the news is at its best ridiculous – and at it’s worse yielding to the impulse of greed and entitlement. Preachers are public servants. Politicians are as well.

It is disconcerting when a politician wins a seat in the United States Congress or an executive position in the White House with little in their bank accounts yet within a few short years as a private citizen morph into multimillionaires writing books, making speeches, and becoming special interest lobbyists. This is disturbing for many as they make their way to the voting booths; fixing this with post-office restrictions, is as, or more important than campaign finance reform. 

We are living in a time where wealth and bloated financial success is at an inflated premium. Maybe it has always been somewhat, but I am confident that there has never been a time in America when so many, have so much, for so little: tech start up founders and early accredited investors make billions after a few years or less of innovation yet our teachers who give our children a taste for learning, paramedics and nurses who save our lives, and fireman that pluck us out of the flames barely make enough to have a middle class lifestyle.

Then there are the gross financial disparities between the average citizen and celebrities in Hollywood and New York, Wall Street financiers, and investment bankers. And let’s not forget corporate CEO’s who’s compensation including stock options and perks are somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 to 500 times the average worker in their companies; in recent memory it was only 10 to 20 times the average worker’s wages. This multiple feels justified; okay with most of us as a reasonable reward for high level success – but 500 times!

Then there’s small and medium size business owners who grow their enterprises incrementally. Then some financier convinces them they can be better and bigger or the owner just wants to retire and put the business in good hands. Ripe for the picking; unscrupulous hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, and outside investors of every stripe buy in, stripping the business of cash and real assets leaving it bankrupt or unrecognizable. This happened just a couple of years ago in my area to a large reputable furniture store that employed thousands of people. It’s hard to know how this kind of capitalistic approach to business ownership is not rooted in greed. 

Then of course there’s us. It is justifiable if the unemployed, disabled, struggling young adult, financially strapped single parent, or the working poor seek out a free offer or the best deal they can get in the marketplace wherever and whenever they can. But we should recognize if we have been blessed with ample resources that we are promoting the protraction of the poor and working poor if we do the same. Nothing is cheap or free without a trade off – there’s a human side to this. Someone will suffer economically and it won’t be financiers, stock holders, and corporate executives. It is the average worker on the shop floor in the U.S. and around the world, often in third world countries that suffer economic hardship; dirt cheap wages and in many cases grueling working conditions as a result of dirt cheap goods and services.

And then there is the struggling local small and midsize retailer that offers a good value week in and week out at a fair price until they are forced to lay off our salesclerk mother, son or daughter and sequently are forced out of business because they cannot compete with online and big box retailers. These people support our community and deserve our support. Buying locally even if it’s ten-fifteen percent more, tipping the local waitress liberally, buying cookies from the high school football team, pausing to give the homeless a few bucks even if you don’t know what they are going to use it for are just a few examples of how we could be a little more generous.

The impulse to give is better than the impulse to receive. The impulse to bless is better than being blessed. I’m introspective as I write this essay, I’ve had to duck a few times. Yet, I am determined to do better. 

It’s hard to know why so many of us too frequently shelve the idea that it is okay to just have a good job, get married to someone who has a good job (in some cases pausing work and career to raise children) and simply live a financially comfortable life together.  And be satisfied with our life in the way it unfolds. I do know that accepting our lot-in-life after we have done the best we can is out of vogue for many Americans today – we want more! It is hard to figure out why it is so hard for so many to simply be content with a simple and meaningful life.

Maybe the aggregate influence of today’s celebrity culture, inflated professional compensation of athletes, the compensational visibility of C-suite executives and investment bankers, the green and greed on Wall Street when stocks astronomically rise for no apparent reason, and day and night media coverage of the rich and famous of every flavor. And worse for me, the self-indulgent tendencies of my generation, setting the pace, indulging our children and grandchildren; loved ones we thought we were helping to have a better life than we had is not out of the equation. 

Maybe the shrinking of the middle class over the last four decades is to blame. Politicians assured us there will be more opportunity for all. In recent memory campaign slogans like Yes We Can and Make America Great Again have been in tandem with dwindling economic opportunities and less than needed social advancements for too many socioeconomic groupings; marginalizing minorities, impeding the progress in the eradication of unsettling racism birthed in slavery’s greediness, and gender inequality stunting economic progress for our wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, and many other societal ills where greed and selfinterest stop people in their tracks. Where bigotry and oppression is in the light, greed is somewhere in the shadows. Although some progress has been made, more should and could have been made. This has been a bipartisan failure over the course of many years.

Then there are the advisers who are helping us pave our way to riches; more than a few financial gurus have recently pontificated that we should not follow our passion, it’s the worst thing we can do, but follow the money. The implications is, forget about doing something meaningful that might provide an average to an above average living – chuck it and just get rich! Another very respected financier said, don’t buy a house unless you have ten million dollars in the bank. That’s probably good advice for him! The average American would just like to have a nest they call home. It’s hard to know if we have evolved into an irreversible culture of greed or we are simply yielding to those impulses that we can change if we are willing to do it. I tend to believe the latter. 

A socialistic approach or anything near it has historically been wanting; economical, socially, politically and horrifically unsuited to foster human rights. So this is clearly not the answer. Maybe in our democracy we could consider a Compassionate Capitalism. Suggesting this approach might at first seem political, the argument would be it is humanitarian – even spiritual. It is treating others like you would want to be treated in the same or similar circumstance. There are many bright and talented people with heart in both political parties, in the boardrooms of big business, and spiritual leaders of wealthy churches that are creative and experienced with social programs and socioeconomic infrastructure that are capable of offering compassionate alternatives.  

The stakes are high; collectively and personally: collectively we could work at getting a little closer to a more Compassionate Capitalism so more Americans could participate in the American Dream that we hear so much about. And to lead the way around the world. On a personal level, our humanity is at stake: Jesus was clear when He let us know the love of money is the root of all evil. He also said, it is better to give than to receive. Generosity and greed are polar impulses. It is far better, to yield to impulses rooted in generosity than the unbridled impulses of greed. God help us find the will to do it!

Next Essay: Impulse: Pride 

Joseph C. Hutchison, Rochester Hills Michigan, August 2020, Published by Permission Only

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