Ambition is good. It’s what fuels achievement. Greed on the other hand is definitely bad. No one ever willingly admits to being greedy. The distinction is more than mere semantics. An ambitious politician or CEO is rewarded with status, power and wealth. Bill Gates is not greedy for money. Neither was Bill Clinton greedy for power. The popular spin machine will have you believe that these ambitious men were solely driven by a desire to do good. Their sanitized biographies were meticulously scrubbed of the blemish of greed. We instinctively recoil from raw greed as if there was a cooked variety.
But the difference between the two is not as clear cut as you might think. Both ambition and greed are essentially desires to have what we lack. Both are forms of hunger or thirst. There is a reason why we describe those ambitious for power as power-hungry, and those craving knowledge as having a thirst for it. The analogy is apt. Deprived of nourishment or water we die. Deprived of the fulfillment of our cravings we die inwardly. It is no coincidence that the Protestant/Calvinist countries which raised hard work and the accumulation of wealth to be articles of faith, a sign of God’s favor, produced the greatest material benefits for the largest number of people the world has ever known, far greater than those societies that extolled the virtue of self denial or egalitarianism.
So maybe greed is not all that bad? Yet something in the word itself connotes more than mere hunger, more like a ravenousness, a craving without bounds that cannot be satiated. It is that lack of self-restraint that turns us off greed. Sanitize greed of this undesirable attribute and what’s left? Ambition, not the unbridled kind of course, but the more appealing disciplined thriving for a personal good that attempts to keep itself in check and keep the common good within its sights. This white-washed greed, masquerading as wholesome ambition, is what we have been fed for more than a generation now as the justification for deregulation, top-down economics, and the rest of the conservative claptrap. Let ambition loose unchecked and it will control itself. Yeah, for sure…
Aside from being disingenuous, this propaganda debases the very principles that should make capitalism work. By obfuscating the crucial difference between wealth as a fair reward for your labors and talent and the rampant grabbing we see all around us, justified only by what you can get away with, greed has been enshrined in our culture as an acceptable, even desirable, trait.
To be sure the bankers at Goldman Sacks did not invent greed. They are pigmies following in the questionable footsteps of rapacious greedy giants like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and the other robber barons of the 19th century. The American billionaire of today has a long tradition of greed to emulate. Then as now, a stigma was connected to their wealth, to wit the moniker “robber” they earned, and the violent labor protests they spawned as a reaction to their excesses.
The disingenuousness of the mega-rich in claiming to be merely ambitious, not really greedy has its counterpart disingenuousness in their political opponents. I wonder how many of the most vociferous anti-rich lefties would turn down trading places with the mega-rich should they be given half a chance? We live in a culture in which making as much money as you could possibly make, with total disregard to whether you need it, what you use it for, and the kind of effect it may have on others is accepted as more than OK. It is the new American Dream. What drives millions of parents to dress up their 4 year old daughters in obscenely provocative outfits, and train them like little monkeys to vie for a spot on a pageant? How about American Idol? Isn’t it a loud endorsement of the fantasy to join in the orgy of greed?
Once again, I find nothing wrong with the ambition to succeed financially, of vying to become rich enough to never have to worry about money, able to satisfy every need and luxury you desire, within the bounds of decency. The crucial question is, “when is enough enough?” At what point does the attainment of your dream become a disease?
Put another way, can ambition ever be unbridled? Can excess be subject to some limiting code that would make the very rich stay within it?
Of course you could legislate the code. Administer it from the outside. I don’t mean by the dictatorial methods of Communism. A democratic government has the power to limit the wealth of its citizens by levying such taxes that would ensure a ceiling that no one could exceed no matter how much they made. Norway is such a country. It is far from being Communist. It has a similar free market system to the United States, but its wealthiest citizens cannot be richer than a given amount (which by the way is extremely high, enough for them to earn many times more than the average citizen). Do the rich mind? Not a bit. In an interview on NPR, the head of the largest cell phone provider explained that the difference between what he could theoretically take home in the US and what he gets to keep in Norway is just a small price to pay for the kind of generous society he wants to live in. His “sacrifice” pays for social services that ensure that fewer citizens will turn to crime. “I pay for my daughter to be able to walk the streets safely. The average person in Norway feels fairly treated by society. My taxes contribute to that. And let me tell you by the way” he said with a chuckle, “I live very well”.
That could never happen in the United States. It just goes against the grain.
But legislating mega-wealth out of existence is not a real solution anyway. As great as the damage of income disparity is to the spirit of a nation the damage of setting up the mega-rich as the object of envy and an ideal to strive for is far greater. Unless the accumulation of obscene unnecessary wealth is seen for the grotesque behavior that it is the practice will continue to poison every aspect of our personal and social intercourse.
Unlimited unbridled accumulation of wealth by an individual is a mental disorder. Starting to see it that way is the only way in which this absurd behavior can lose its hold on the imagination of a nation.
To return to the metaphor of food and drink, you can love food without having an eating disorder. You can love to drink without being an alcoholic. The reason we know when someone has crossed that line is because we have identified that transgression as an illness. Being obese or bulimic is not something to criticize but something to treat. We have not always been as broad minded. Until recently “fat people” were blamed for their lack of restraint. Alcoholics were mere drunkards. It took much education for practically everyone to accept the view that these behaviors are fundamentally self-destructive expressions of an illness. The recognition that an eating disorder, just like Kleptomania, is something that the perpetrator is powerless to change on his or her own, ushered in interventions that though not always successful at the very least have changed our way of seeing them.
A person who already has a private jet who then goes out and buys three more (so as not to fall behind the competition) is likewise not a criminal to be heckled but a sick person who needs medical help. Perhaps starting a Billionaires Anonymous 12-step program would not be such a bad idea. Consider a wealthy woman living in a 20 million dollar home in Montecito California, with a 2,600 square foot bedroom, who decides that she needs a second shoe closet because the one next door to her bedroom (the size of a bachelor apartment) is too full. This is not luxury. This is gorging on money. Anyone envying (or aspiring to) such wealth is like someone envying a Bulimic who gorges herself on three tubs of ice cream at one sitting and then throws it all up. If this is enviable to you, you too need to see shrink. If you envy the lady in Montecito, ditto.
In fact the same principle is at play in both people suffering from an eating disorder and those suffering from an acquisition disorder. Neither the food nor the private jet have much intrinsic value. The behavior in both cases is compulsive. The person acquiring companies is like the person stuffing themselves and then throwing up. Both are sick.
The transformation of excessive wealth and conspicuous consumption from an object of envy and anger to an object of pity would have an inevitable effect of the sufferers themselves. A sense of shame associated with all mental illnesses would descend on the mega-rich as they try to get a grip on their obsession of earning and spending, or perhaps. like alcoholics, they would just pretend to do so. What a boon to an entire new self-help industry, a new branch of psychotherapy, “How to be less rich in seven easy steps”. Who knows, a new model for success may even arise from this, the modest movie star who lives in an apartment and drives a Toyota.
Oprah may just enjoy a bus ride.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)