Charlie's Blog: Greed



There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

It was reported that at the funeral of Ayn Rand that a 6 foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign was placed near her casket. At any other funeral, such an arrangement would have been in poor taste, but it was considered appropriate for Ayn Rand who often used the dollar sign as a personal symbol of her life and her philosophy. This philosophy is known as Objectivism, but most critics dismiss it as greed elevated to a school of thought. Ms. Rand has long been a punching bag for those who despise capitalism and greed, but you have to admire one thing about her. At least she was audacious enough to embrace it openly instead of trying to dress it up as something altruistic.

What is greed? Is it greed to want to keep what you have earned? Is it greed to want a sports car and a McMansion? Is it greed when some poor person envies the advantages of the rich? In all of these things, we see an interconnection with all of the deadly sins. Greed accompanies pride when you want a fancy piece of bling to show off to your friends. Greed accompanies envy when you are the friend who wants that fancy piece of bling. But is it greed for a father to want to be able to feed his family?

The problem with the Ayn Rand philosophy is that it immediately strikes you as lacking in common sense. It seems extreme though rigorously logical. But the reason for this is obvious. Objectivism is a godless philosophy. Without the person of Christ to center our values upon, we are left with something else to align with. For a godless philosophy like communism, it was aligned with the "collective" which obliterated the individual. As a victim of that philosophy, Ayn Rand turned it around and aimed her godless philosophy at the individual. You should live for yourself. This is the essence of greed.

You can live entirely for others, or you can live entirely for yourself. But the person you should really be living for is God. By living for God, you avoid the extremes of egoism and altruism. You look out for others because you see each person as sharing in the image of God, and you refuse to sacrifice them to the abstraction known as the collective. Conversely, you take care of yourself realizing that you are also made in the image of God. With our attention and lives properly focused on God, our lives achieve a balance and harmony that can only be described as "common sense." Communism and Objectivism lack common sense because they are both founded upon philosophical abstractions carried to their logical and foolish ends.

Greed is simply living in pursuit of things instead of in pursuit of God and sainthood. Now, things are necessary in order for us to live and achieve these goals. For instance, rosary beads are material aids to prayer. A cathedral is a material aid to worship. Tools are material aids to doing work. We need houses, cars, and clothes. These needs will vary from person to person and from one society to another. But here is the thing about material things. They all have a limit. You don't need to live in two houses in the same place. You don't need a Maserati to get to work when a Ford will do just as well or even better. Common sense tell us what we need relative to time and place and vocation. Greed is when we exceed our needs. Like gluttony, greed aims to fill some other need with the wrong thing.

It is tempting to believe that money will make us happy because most of our problems are because of a lack of money or can be solved with the acquisition of money. But money does not solve our ultimate problem which is the lack of God. Most people are spiritually bankrupt. They want to live a more abundant and robust life, but they settle for buying things instead. This is because buying a thing is easier than doing a thing. Yet, material things are often an impediment to doing things. I don't see a person running a Fortune 500 company and catching the waves on the daily in Hawaii. Similarly, a life lived in pursuit and consumption of wealth is not one lived in the pursuit and knowledge of God.

I remember watching and enjoying The Razor's Edge with Bill Murray which tells the tale of a Post-WWI Lost Generation member that ditches his materialistic friends who decide to go Great Gatsby while he goes on a radical pilgrimage to find spiritual enlightenment. I liked the movie not because it offered answers but because it was about the realization of spiritual poverty. I would go on and read the book by W. Somerset Maugham and liked the idea that Bill Murray's character of Larry goes on to find happiness as a simple working man while the others got what they were looking for except for happiness. Of course, it is a work of fiction because I don't think anyone finds happiness in Eastern philosophy or religion. But I can agree that you can't find happiness in Western materialism either.

People know that you can't buy happiness. Money does not brings happiness. It simply brings relief. It puts food in your stomach, a roof over your head, clothes on your back, fire in the hearth, and a bed for you at night. Beyond that, it is worthless. Money does nothing for the spiritual side of the ledger until you give it away. Once your needs are met, you should focus on meeting the needs of others. This would be your family first and spreading out from there. This would be anathema to Ayn Rand who was at pains to show that everything she did was for herself. But she slipped up constantly by doing things for others. Her egoistic reasoning on these things was ex post facto. This sort of reasoning is behind the ridiculous title of the book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids by libertarian economist Bryan Caplan. There may be value in the book, but the reason we have children is because we love them. We don't need selfish reasons to love others. It is part of our nature as people created in the image of God.

The point of generosity is not to live a miserly existence or a profligate existence. A true saint lives a life that generates abundance. Why do apple trees produce apples? Because that is their nature. They don't need selfish reasons to make apples. Biologists may make arguments for selfish genes and how producing fruit propagates the species. But when a saint produces good fruit which prompts others to also produce good fruit, where is the selfishness in that? But any fruitless tree has a pointless existence.

Greed does not lead to abundance. When people hoard wealth and live for themselves, they acquire the stench of death and decay. This happened to Ayn Rand as her creative energies left her such that her days were spent demagoguing the world and watching Charlie's Angels. This decaying aspect of greed is captured perfectly in the Dickens tale, A Christmas Carol, where Marley and Scrooge were like two dead things imprisoned and chained by their own greed.

Ignore what Gordon Gecko said. Greed is not good. It goes against God, humanity, and nature. A greedy person becomes the poorest person. The irony of it all is that all that hoard of wealth will eventually and inevitably go to others. As the old joke goes, "There are no U-Hauls behind hearses." You're not taking it with you, so you might as well have a say in where it will go before you assume room temperature.

Generosity breeds wealth. This seems counterintuitive to people. Or, they may think I am teaching some variation of the Prosperity Gospel/Law of Attraction philosophy. But I am not. A debate was had in the 70's between two thinkers. The first was economist Milton Friedman who argued that the primary purpose of a company was to create value for the shareholders. The second was management guru Peter Drucker who said that the primary purpose of a company was to create value for the customer. Friedman won the argument in the 70's in the minds of many. In practice, those who pursued the Friedman philosophy suffered for it. Meanwhile, those who embraced the Drucker philosophy prospered. You can read about it here.

The Drucker philosophy makes sense because there is a difference between creating value and merely getting money. Those interested purely in getting money have the nasty habit of sticking it to the other guy. As Brian Tracy put it, "Successful people are always looking for opportunities to help others. 
Unsuccessful people are always asking, 'What's in it for me?'” This is known as the game of "heads I win, tails you lose." In theory, you can't ever go wrong with this game so long as there is a steady supply of suckers to be the losers. But this is theory. In practice, people get wise to the game. So, the company that does its customers wrong loses their patronage. The company that cheats workers out of fair wages is paid back in kind by less productivity and inferior work. Likewise, the company gets back at the workers by cutting their hours, pay, and benefits. It becomes a ridiculous race to the bottom. It is a vicious cycle ending in stagnation, bankruptcy, and death.

When you create value, you aim to leave the other person feeling like they got the better part of the deal. This is called "making a customer." When people find value, they tend to come back for more. Value is created out of our generosity. When you have a lot of happy customers, you end up with a lot of happy shareholders. This is wisdom. Wisdom seems like foolishness to the fool because the most direct path to the end seems like the most obvious one. Why plant the seed corn when I can just eat it now? Why save this money when I can just spend it now? Why earn money when I can just steal it? Why make a customer when I can just trick them out of their money? Much of wisdom consists in having longer time horizons and the patience to see it out. The ultimate time horizon is eternity.

People cannot see longer time horizons because of their attachments. This is the proverbial monkey trap where the monkey's hand is wrapped so firmly around the prize that he cannot pull his clenched fist from the trap. This illustration has long been used to demonstrate the nature of greed. 

To conquer greed, you have to let go of the attachment to material things. People automatically assume this means selling all you have and giving it to the poor. Of course, that would work. But it becomes like the cup of Diogenes. Diogenes used a cup to drink from water sources but was chastened to see a child using just his hands. "A child has beaten me in plainness of living," he remarked as he threw his cup away. This is a nice story of detachment, but do we really have to do this? If you have a cup fetish, this may be an answer, but I think most of us realize that it is the inner disposition that matters more than the extremes of outward practice. Remember, Jesus had nowhere to lay his head, but he still enjoyed staying in the homes of his friends.

The miser and the pauper both share the quality of having a meager existence. The miser becomes a pauper because of the lack of generosity in his spirit. The miser may dress this up as merely prudence and provision against future contingencies, but death is the ultimate contingency. No one escapes death. It makes no sense to live in misery now in order to live in misery later. Many is the tale told of bag ladies who perished with fortunes squirreled away in cat food boxes and grocery bags.

Generosity of spirit is that quality of character where you are willing to share from your bounty of blessings because you know more are coming. It is believing in the positive sum game of God's goodness and your own goodness. Someone asked me once if I was angry that someone had taken something I had written and passed it off as their own work. I was not angry but flattered that someone cared enough to steal it. But I don't worry about the "loss" of my writing because I can always write more. I write in the same way that an apple tree grows apples. It is my nature. Similarly, God's nature is one of liberality and giving and generosity. We fail to see this because we do not appreciate the goodness of His blessings preferring the blessings of lottery winners. If you want the antidote to greed, be generous in the giving of yourself, your talents, and your resources to God. They already belong to God, but He gives you the privilege of being as generous with it as He was with giving it to you. God shares. And, you have to remember He doesn't have to share. But it is His nature to be good to all. I think you will find yourself richer in the process and pursuit of this generosity.

Among the rich you will never find a really generous man even by accident. They may give their money away, but they will never give themselves away; they are egotistic, secretive, dry as old bones. To be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it.