Opinion

Edward Hadas

Greed, justice and deception

By Edward Hadas
December 19, 2012

Greed contributes to all the economic and financial woes of prosperous societies. The United States and other rich countries produce much more than is needed to support all of their people in comfort, so if desires were all truly modest, there would be few problems. Greed encourages people to decide that their own share is too small. Greed influences the popular desire for GDP growth (more, faster), financial gains (higher house prices as a human right) and total economic security (guaranteed pension, come what may). Voters’ greed encourages governments to spend more and tax less.

During the boom years, politicians and economists consistently underestimated greed’s disruptive power. While few endorsed the extremist view that greed is actually good, even fewer acted as if it were dangerous. The rhetoric changed during the crisis. It has become fashionable to add “greedy” to the description of any unpopular group – bankers, highly paid executives, rich people in general, welfare cheats.

In theory, the entry of greed into the public discourse ought to be helpful. If those subject to immoderate desire could be identified with certainty, then society might take up arms against them. While we might never win the battle, we could at least hope to shame and restrain the malefactors.

As a political agenda-item, though, “the fight against greed” has a big problem; greed is much easier to identify in other people than in ourselves. The current debate on raising U.S. taxes on the very rich is typical. Few people have any doubt over who is being greedy about the tax system: it’s someone else. Yes, there is the odd Warren Buffett, a multi-billionaire who thinks he is under-taxed. However, the tiny platoon of the self-accusing is up against two large armies of the self-justifying. The privileged force, small but powerful, is certain that the government is already getting at least a fair share of their incomes. The poor, the middle class and the old, who make up the much larger tax-them-more brigades, fight among themselves, but they are all certain that their motivation is justice, not greed.

The problem is profound, and not merely economic. In all domains, greed can be crude – think of a toddler reaching for a sibling’s toy or slice of cake – but it often masquerades as a virtuous desire for deal that is “only fair”.

Lest I be accused of hypocrisy in this matter, I will accuse myself first of all. For example, a few months ago I decided that Reuters.com had not given my weekly column its fair share of attention. I sent off an indignant missive, explaining that I did not want special treatment, only what justice demanded. In reply, my editor said that he received many similar complaints from writers, but was still waiting for one about having too much display on the website. Had I thought to protest the injustice to my peers when I thought they were short-changed? The answer: of course not. I would not have noticed that imbalance, because my supposed sense of justice was essentially selfish. It was greed, in this case for attention, dressed up as righteousness.

I am not alone, of course. Greed distorts everyone’s perceptions and judgements. The rich are particularly easy targets in a society which is theoretically committed to equality. Consider how bankers responded to their boom-time bonuses – almost all measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. On most trading floors the mood on announcement-day was funereal. To a man (there were few women traders), they were persuaded that their rewards were unjustly low. Only members of their charmed circle could possibly see anything other than greed at work.

However, the temptation to feel hard done by is not limited to the rich; it is universal. The welfare state with its entitlements culture has helped propagate disguised greed among the poor; the inflation of house prices did the same for the middle classes. If bankers were greedy when they lent excessively to homeowner-speculators, the borrowers were at least as greedy when they signed on for loans they could not afford to repay. The rapid increase of medical costs, for rich and poor alike, is best explained by disguised entitlements-greed in a domain where justice can easily be invoked to demand the prolongation of life at any cost.

Greed’s subtlety explains why its entry into the post-crisis rhetoric has not actually clarified the debate. It is universally assumed that greed only affects other people, so the concept is used solely to insult opponents. It could be a helpful tool for reaching a common understanding of the failings of our characters, customs and institutions. After all, individuals who examine themselves carefully usually uncover hidden depths of greed, and this self-criticism can reduce their susceptibility. An open and humble debate could do the same for our prosperous society.

Comments
15 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Are you serious?

This is nothing more than a pathetic attempt at obfuscation to deflect charges of greed against the wealthy class.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive
 

Apparently, the wealthy class doesn’t have access to dictionaries, like ordinary people, perhaps because many of the words describing their behavior would not be very complimentary.

—————————

Let me clear up your bewilderment:

greed

noun

excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions.

Origin:
1600–10; back formation from greedy

Synonyms
avarice, avidity, cupidity, covetousness; voracity, ravenousness, rapacity. Greed, greediness denote an excessive, extreme desire for something, often more than one’s proper share.

Greed means avid desire for gain or wealth (unless some other application is indicated) and is definitely uncomplimentary in implication:

His greed drove him to exploit his workers.

Greediness when unqualified, suggests a craving for food; it may, however, be applied to all avid desires, and need not be always uncomplimentary: greediness for knowledge, fame, praise.”

————————

It seems from the above the word has been in common use since the early 1600s.

It’s about time YOU PEOPLE learned what it means, and what will happen to those greedy bastards out there because of it.

While it need not always be uncomplimentary, I think in the case of the present wealthy class, their unnatural desire for fame and praise would qualify as uncomplimentary.

The ONLY one that is not uncomplimentary is knowledge — the single characteristic of greed that the wealthy do not want, which is exemplified by your pathetic attempt to evade the truth.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive
 

Excellent piece!

One point I would make to the contrary…it is NOT that the “…disguised entitlements-greed in a domain where justice can easily be invoked to demand the prolongation of life at any cost” is driving the “…rapid increase of medical costs, for rich and poor alike…”. It is our self-delusion that each of us expects to receive every new medical breakthrough in procedure, medication and technique from a system funded to pay for only the relatively inexpensive and few medical options available back when the program was put together.

Think organ transplants (and life-long anti-rejection drugs), endless dialysis therapy, hideously expensive cancer “treatments” that typically prolong a life of ever-decreasing comfort or enjoyment a month or two, prosthetics once fiction on TV as the “Million Dollar Man”, as being the drivers of an ever-increasing “medical national debt” arising solely from the extreme disconnect between what “we, the people” pay and what we expect “down the road”.

Don’t pay undue attention to comments from those own greed and envy encompasses all whose financial accomplishments exceed theirs to the point of hate. They are in the dubious position of having to hate themselves or be hypocrites if they ever achieve such “success”. “Catch 22″

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

Great opinion piece sir!

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

@ OneOfTheSheep –

What you and Mr. Hadas are arguing is the official credo of the wealthy class, which is “survival of the fittest” (i.e. Social Darwinism).

Thus, following your “logic”, US society cannot afford to maintain the existence of anyone who does not contribute to the common good.

I suggest, you add the following groups of people to those who you mentioned who no longer contribute, but represent a burden on sociey.

This list is just off the top of my head and is by no means conclusive, so feel free to add your own “slacker” group.

– Anyone who is diagnosed with a mental disease of any kind, since their actions are unpredictable and drive up health care costs and mental health care is one of the most expensive in terms of treatment with little or no probability of a cure ever being found.

– All those who require “special accommodation” to use public facilities, for example, those in wheel chairs. As you pointed out yourself, anyone who needs prosthetics.

– Children born with obvious physical or mental handicaps — “autism” is a classic example of those who should be put down immediately.

– Childhood cancer victims never totally recover their disease and require an inordinate amount of health care their entire lives.

– AIDs disease! An outstanding example of why health care should not be offered to anyone who acts in a careless manner, and then expects society to pick up the tab for it.

– Smokers, of course, would fall into the same category of self-abuse.

– Fat people require a lot of extra health care, as well. Anyone who weighs more than a specified norm should not be allowed access to health care.

– Old people on respirators must go. The solution here is simple, just unplug the expensive equipment.

– Anyone who has suffered a debilitating stroke, and is no longer able to function on their own.

– Prisons! A classic example of a HUGE waste of public money, since they are living at the expense of the state and are there for actions committed against the state.

– US combat veterans is a category we seldom mention. With the increasing amount of battlefiedl healthcare, many more of them are surviving, but hideously wounded so that they will never recover, either physically or mentally.

– Retirees on Social Security who can no longer work. They represent an enormous double drain on our economy. Not only do they spend money on frivilous things like health care that could be better used by younger, healthier workers, but they waste investment money that could be used to create jobs.

Never mind that these jobs are being created anywhere and everywhere except the US, they still use up valuable capital investment money that could be used to enrich the wealthy class even more.

– Retirees who retire on 401k plans.
These people don’t deserve to lock up all that investment capital when the country so desperately needs it to survive.

– Homosexuals (a Republican favorite I am surprised you did not mention). While they don’t use up inordinate amounts of health care, they do tend to disrupt society, and every single moment of disruption costs money.

==========================

IF THIS LIST TURNS YOUR STOMACH AS IT DID MINE TO WRITE IT, THINK ABOUT THIS — WHEN THE REPUBLICANS ARGUE FOR NO “FREE LUNCH” FOR ANYONE, THIS IS WHAT THEY REALLY MEAN.

ANYONE WHO CAN’T PAY HIS/HER OWN WAY, IS LEFT TO DIE, JUST LIKE IN A 3RD WORLD COUNTRY.

THAT IS WHAT “SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST” REALLY MEANS.

HAVE WE AS A NATION SUNK THAT LOW?

AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE ON WHEN HUMAN LIFE IS NO LONGER WORTH KEEPING ALIVE?

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive
 

Sorry, I am double-counting one group on my list above.

Homosexuals and AIDS should be combined, since even if they don’t currently have the disease, they should be considered to be “potential disease carriers”.

Thus, to anyone reading my list and objecting to homosexals being on it, that is my answer.

As a group, homosexuals DO use an inordinate amount of health care, since it is only a matter of time before they catch AIDS.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive
 

I think the medical fields and industries, including pharmaceuticals, is a prime example of greed. I can understand the hospital asking $4.00 – $12.00 for a Band-Aid. But I don’t understand that same hospital paying 2-6 for it. As the baby boomers ripen, the capitalist take notice. Pharmaceuticals will now adjust the price based on your income. Not how much will the market bear, but how much can an individual pay. Isn’t that nice of them?
Mr. Hadas has a very good point. The requirement that extremely expensive services cannot be refused, and you die if you don’t ask for them is a pretty slick way to ensure maximum profit. Greed at its worst.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

@ tmc –

Yes, you are right, of course — “greed at its worst” — with people living off of the suffering and pain of others.

THAT is what unfettered capitalism does, AND what the wealthy want to do with this nation.

The question is whether we have grown so callous and indifferent as to allow a “market solution” to our healthcare needs?

THAT is what the Republicans want.

THAT is what will happen as a result.

As a nation, we need to read the fine print before we sign up for their version of what they want this country to become.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive
 

The capitalist may all be greedy, but the greedy are not all capitalists.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

@ tmc –

It appears I have been banned from any more comments on Reuters.

It appears I have finally angered the powers that be more than they can tolerate with the truth.

So much for freedom of speech.

This was my other account I was using.

Gordon2342

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive
 

@Gordon2342,

When one considers history prior to the end of the last century your perspective and arguments seem at best naive and at worst bizarre. You argue that what society can do today for some it should do for all? I totally disagree. Present government expenditures are multiples of present revenues and yet you argue for greater expenditures? Do you know how to balance a check book?

Some Native Americans (and Eskimo societies?) had a practice of putting those too sick, infirm or otherwise without the ability to contribute to the overall welfare of the group “out” from the fires and the tents to die of starvation or exposure. The wife of an old and respected leader was not exempt.

This was, all things considered, a merciful death (in the context of other options). These “hunter-gathering nomads” knew well their society could not sustain the unproductive. They “drew the line” they had to and refused to put the survival of the group itself at risk. Hard, but necessary choices. The needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few.

Circumstances force society to put a financial value on human life all the time. Think 9/11 victims. Emotion trumped logic…why are the lives of our servicemen and servicewomen “worth less” than 9/11 victims? The trouble with common sense is that it’s not so common any more.

Now that our society has the ability to test and discover an ever-increasing number of birth defects, including autism, I think it should. I see no rational reason why any society should encourage the birth of more and more “special needs” citizens.

Prospective parents who feel bound by their faith or emotions to bring such fetuses to term and birth should not expect taxpayers to fund the cost of their personal burden(s), but they do. I think such parents demonstrate merely a masochistically different form of greed and “entitlement thinking” who seek to transfer to a “compassionate” society their incipient personal financial burden. Notice how taxpayers never have a voice in such decisions? Lifelong “special needs” costs can be obscene!

Entirely different is the situation of children whose autism could not be genetically or otherwise diagnosed in advance. These deserve the same concern and compassion our society provided in the middle of the last century to those unfortunate enough to contract polio. Did America build millions and millions of iron lungs to treat every victim the world over for free? No, but we built many; and went after that disease with enough research priority and dollars that it has largely been eradicated as a threat today with a few exceptions. Similarly, when autism’s “cause” is found, there will be generations of victims with as long as they live. Why should there be more than are unavoidable?

“Responsibility” is the fundamental consideration to what our society SHOULD demand of ALL citizens. School has become more baby sitter than educator. Why? Today we see an ever-increasing number of citizens mature in their teens already too fat for military or other productive work.

Predictable medical costs of adult obesity and diabetes area clear threat to our future national solvency. There are many rewards and penalties that can be employed to assure a society at least as healthy as those that fought WW II. People need to lead, follow or get out of the way!

The same can be said for the exploding epidemic of drug addiction, smoking, HIV or tattoo/piercing infections and associated costs of “care”. These people live off of polite society in much the same way that the pirates of old did. They contribute disproportionately to ever-increasing drug resistance of relatively common bacteria. If they want the benefits of society, they need to “clean up their act”.

Prisoners have not earned a life of idleness. Put them to productive work! Those with skills still have them. Those willing and able can be trained to be productive when they get out. Make prisons self-sufficient as much as possible. They can grow their own food, make/wash their own clothes, generate or capture their own power/heat. The experience of working together towards common goals can be transformative for some, if not all.

For those unwilling, fine. Progressive penalties, one by one…no gym or TV or library access. Eventually all they can do is stare at blank walls, “examples” in solitary others can watch on TV 24/7. I knew a man from one of the slavic countries who said their prisons were small and never got full. There was one door to go in and a special opening through which prisoners received food, cards and knives. It never got full and no one ever left. An option worth considering for incorrigible sociopaths.

The firefighter or policemen or serviceman wounded in the line of duty IS society’s responsibility. “We, the people” accept that some necessary work is dangerous and high risk. The “bargain” that is not always made good is that we will “make it right” (within reason) for those wounded while providing services necessary to our society. Such just debts should be honored fully in good faith without fail.

Retirees on Social Security are a legitimate part of America’s “circle of life”. You won’t be rich and you can’t live large, but all citizens who EARN AND NEED such “retirement” should have reasonable and necessary basic needs met. Local volunteers make “Senior Centers, library access, “meals on wheels”, etc. valued and inexpensive assistance. When we look upon elders it should not be with shame or envy. We all age and that which we sow we should be content to reap, each of us earning over our productive years the right to live out our “golden years” in reasonable dignity.

Since the need to use a wheel chair is not, in and of itself a barrier to mental productivity or a reasonable quality of life, I think society SHOULD make REASONABLE accommodation for accessibility. It seems rather stupid and an unjustified waste of resources to try to make EVERYWHERE “wheelchair accessible”. If you want to climb Everest, do it while you’re young!

If “old people on respirators” can afford them, it’s THEIR money. Just don’t appropriate money I earn before taxes to give EVERYONE one. Stroke? Same answer. When Medicare/Medicaid payments and benefits were originally contemplated, it was usually obvious when one’s “time had come”. What we contributed cannot pay for all medical interventions possible today. Whose “job” is it to say “NO”?

America is not yet a “Star Trek Society” where the government just prints money and passes it out to one and all, who may choose a career and work or not as they see fit. I do see that the Federal Reserve and the Obama administration seem disturbingly well along with such an experiment!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

Nice to your comments again OOTS! Very well put.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

@ OneOfTheSheep –

Once again you rant incoherently, while missing my point entirely.

Your name is certainly apropos.

You truly are “one of the sheep”, and there is no way to reach low grade morons like you, which is why I typically ignore your screed, but you chose to attack my position this time and I decided to demonstrate where your “logic” would take this nation.

Upon reflection, Reuters did me a favor by banning me from posting any more comments. You people are not worth my time and effort, and I was very near to making that decision myself.

This WILL be my last post. But voluntarily, not because I am being forced to stop by Reuters, since they are ways to easily circumvent their ban.

Reuters reflects the great unwashed out there who would rather be fed vegepap than learn the truth.

“Willful ignorance” cannot be overcome, not matter what I say or the logical points I make to counter your rants.

You people deserve each other, and what is soon to befall this nation.

————————————

@ tmc –

I understand why you agree with this moron, because you personally have benefitted from globalization — as have the greedy wealthy, upon whom you dote — but as a nation we will not survive their return to Social Darwinism.

I thought there might be a glimmer of intelligence behind some of your replies to me, but you flip-flop your opinion like a dying fish.

——————————-

As I said, this is my last post and I feel better now that I no longer have to tolerate morons who clearly do not understand the implications of what they are saying.

My reasons for doing it at all, or persisting long after there was clearly no hope of reaching any of the “sheep” out there, are my own. But I feel I have done what I can, and that is enough for me. That it changes nothing no longer matters to me either.

In many instances, what I have said is not truly what I feel personally, but it was said for the greater good.

If you think you know me, you do not. I have never revealed my personal beliefs. They are none of your business.

I will say this, however. I guarantee you would not want to live in my world according to my rules. They would make the wealthy class Social Darwinism look like the “free lunch” you people are constantlfy whining about.

Gordon2352

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive
 

@PseudoTurtle/Gordon2352,

Name calling is always the last gasp of those whose opinions are essentially unsupportable by logic or available resources. The last hundred years have seen the greatest improvement of the “common man”, both in America and in the world as a whole, in thousands of years; and yet you show no gratitude for all that has thus “come your way” by virtue of the accident of birth in America or that it cam about when it did.

My wife and I are rich in many ways, but not in money; and yet we are content, yet “still in the game” of life. A pragmatic outlook allows one to exert such influence as they have while actually enjoying this magnificent journey of life. You are clearly dissatisfied with all that surrounds you, yet this is a choice you can put behind you on any day you choose.

What you feel personally is shown everything you do and say whether you realize it or not. I don’t doubt that a life lived in “your world” according to “your rules” would be more challenging than most of us would choose.

In my opinion those who reject your petty delusions of a utopia utterly unachievable in current society are far wiser than you. May you someday understand that those universal aspirations which allow mankind to progress in quality of life are different, of necessity, from options which “we, the people” can realistically implement in this day and time such that tomorrow’s society in America and the world will be a sustainable improvement.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

This article and the original comment by OneOfTheSheep are well done.

Both remind of the book, “Ishmael”. It would be a simple matter to put our nation’s situation back on track. We just need to reorient our thinking to something that is a little more fair and a lot more sustainable.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive
 

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