When Enough Isn't Enough
There are several things that I do not understand. Correction: the things I don’t understand would fill an encyclopedia or two. But several come to mind as standouts, and this is one of them.
Greed. Dictionaries describe it something like this: “An extreme or excessive desire for resources, especially for property such as money, real estate, or other symbols of wealth.” The key words are extreme and excessive.
Extreme: “great or exaggerated lengths.” Excessive: “exceeding what is necessary or normal.” While the precise meaning of the words used in these definitions could be debated until a week from Tuesday, the crux of the matter boils down to more than is needed. To be sure, most of us have more than is needed, but extreme/excessive with respect to possessions means WAY more than needed. The key question has to do with where to draw the line on personal possessions (money and what it can purchase), and fine tuning an answer to that is another complex task. But societies would do well to grapple with setting limits for the good of the whole community. This is the theory behind and practice of taxation. (Note: for taxation to “work,” clear heads need to ensure that tax dollars are used properly; meaning, for the good of the whole vs a privileged few.)
A few years ago the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science published an article on greed. A few excerpts. It began with “ . . . the dangerous epidemic of unfettered greed. The global financial crisis of 2008 is a classic example of human greed, self-indulgence and selfishness.” “Prominent psychologists have identified greed as a mental disorder and strongly correlated greed with narcissism.” “The combination of human greed, increasing global population, and advancing technology posits a huge impediment to a flourishing planet.”
What I do not understand is why some people want so, so, so much . . . SO MUCH MORE than is enough. If someone is a millionaire and lives like the queen of Sheba, why would such a person feel the need/desire to become a billionaire? Seriously, one can only wolf down so much steak and lobster. Doing the daily double on a solid gold toilet really doesn’t make it any easier. A home in the Seattle area encompasses more than 66,000 sq. ft. with 24 bathrooms and six kitchens . . . for five people. Why do greedy folk with substantially-more-than-enough feel the need to keep increasing acquisitions to WAY-MORE-than enough levels?
In the 1980s I taught a high school ethics class. Each term I included an exercise where we would discuss and vote on limiting any single individual’s after-taxes income to $1 million. (This would equate to roughly $2.5 million today.) They could direct anything over the million to charities, start businesses, etc. . . they just could only keep one million for themselves. If married, that could mean $2M annually. The bill never passed in over a decade of the exercise. For the majority of the students, one million a year wasn’t enough. To repeat myself: I do not understand.
In one of the old Popeye cartoon episodes he says: “O yes indeedy, it doesn’t pay to be greedy.” The greed of a few certainly doesn’t pay for the manifold unfortunate who struggle to feed their children. And it also generally doesn’t pay for greedy individuals who, historically, are generally not all that well-adjusted or happy. Who do you think was more at peace, Howard Hughes or St. Francis of Assisi?