Giving Greed a Bad Name

February 1, 2010

Cultivating Gratitude

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. Merriam 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.

Giving Greed a Bad Name

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, a Kwakiutl chief not only  fed several hundred guests during the two-week long ceremony but also distributed to them 18,000 Hudson Bay blankets, 700 carved bracelets, one dozen canoes valued at 3,000 blankets each, sewing machines, outboard motors, pots and pans, clothing, hundreds of sacks of flour, sugar, fruit, and other food and copper worth 12,000 blankets. What a way to vanquish one’s competitors and even out the playing field! The potlatch was a way of redistributing wealth, although such competitive generosity seems now 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 global financial crisis that began in 2008 and continues to this day underlined 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 and percentages of dollars lost but in terms of trust and betrayal, panic and despair, confidence and optimism. Away from the floor of the stock exchange, it seems that the market is driven more by fear and greed than by scientific calculations.

Most people can easily detect traces of negative emotions in themselves, traces of anger, fear, envy and jealousy. But many people have a blind spot when it comes to greed. The modern Catechism of the Catholic Church lists the capital sins as pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth. Even though greed is one of the seven deadly sins, its immorality was rarely preached about. In contrast, much more time was spent preaching about the seven holy virtues of humility, charity, kindness, patience, chastity, temperance and diligence.

There is, in society, a tacit assumption that, because greed keeps the market buzzing, we all benefit from it. This viewpoint was presented both blatantly and proudly in the 1987 film, Wall Street, where Gordon Gekko (played by actor Michael Douglas) declared that “Greed is good.”

However, in the wake of the global financial crisis, the word  greed suddenly came to be used as a term of abuse and moral indignation to be hurled at the executives on the top rungs of the financial and insurance corporations. Yet, in spite of all the expressions of 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 one’s need, especially when such rapacious accumulation of wealth is done 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 deemed excessive only when it applies to others and not us? Dickens’ character Scrooge in the classic A Christmas Carol, embodies characteristics of greed which most people would despise. Was his desire excessive?

In the “real world,” most people who are connected to the market economy – and who isn’t? – desire to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible. If their behavior is not criminal, they will argue that any negative influence on others’ welfare is simply the natural outcome of competition.

Football and other sporting competitions reinforce this kind of competitive spirit. Winning is what counts. And, do we not admire the spunk of a brash undergraduate who declares that he will be a millionaire by the time he is 25?

Before the financial crisis, many people were aware of the fantastically high salaries and bonuses given to the heads of the big companies. But, far from condemning them for being greedy, many ordinary people actually envied them their good luck or skills or connections. Operating with impunity for decades, Bernie Madoff stole millions of dollars from investors with his ponzi scheme. While the market did fluctuate, Madoff ’s investments seemed to only increase. In retrospect, with the lie of Madoff ’s scheme exposed, 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, the people who were not assisted by the foundation due to its financial losses were victims of Madoff ’s greed as well.

According to the New Testament (Colossians 3:5), greed is a form of idolatry, a type of worshiping the golden calf. Apart from joining the chorus of blame and condemnation, does religion provide any guidance on how to educate young people not to be greedy? Most religions teach that it is a gross mistake to connect material wealth with happiness. In this, they are in line with the findings of happiness economics which shows that beyond the provision of a basic level of material comfort, more 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 or she has, and that the greedy person is always in want. But, exiting from sacred space, it becomes clear that if such attitudes became widespread, consumerism would be undermined and economic activity and GDP would slow down.

A Christian response to widespread greed demands that we be counter-cultural and go against many attitudes that seem natural. This requires a revolution in our thinking, similar to the one started at the beginning of the money economy by St. Francis of Assisi. The spirituality of the author of Brother Sun and Sister Moon urges us to cultivate gratitude. Happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting more but as a result of being grateful for what we do have.

Strangely, people are not grateful because they are happy but, on the contrary, they are happy because they are grateful. The people receiving canoes and blankets at the potlatch almost certainly experienced great happiness and both physical and psychological warmth with their new gifts. Sharing a potluck meal with our families, friends and faith communities is more about breaking bread together and supporting one another thanworrying about whether or not all of the plates match. There is real happiness and gratitude in sharing a meal with people not only for the meal but also for the people at the table.

Fr. Sean Dwan

Fr. Sean Dwan works in Hong Kong.