Friday, September 19, 2014

Greed is a Killer

Recently I watched The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a story of three men prospecting for gold in the mountains of Mexico. It’s a tale of greed; how the lust for money corrupts the human heart. All of the men are affected to some degree, and the character played by Humphrey Bogart is driven insane by the power of his greed. In the end it kills him.
I related this to a friend of mine who is a devotee of a guru in India. She said, “My guru tells a story of greed too!”
A yogi went into the woods to find a cave to live in. At the same time, a group of four thieves were walking through the woods on their way to find something to rob. The yogi went into a cave, and just as the thieves passed by came running out, yelling “There’s a killer in there!” The thieves were intrigued and entered the cave. There they found a pile of treasure. Each of the four immediately started plotting how to get all the treasure for himself. The two senior members sent the younger ones off for a cart to haul the loot, and then lay in ambush and killed them on their return…
My friend couldn’t remember all the details, but the end result was all four of the thieves lay dead. The treasure was indeed a killer.

Greed was once considered immoral and a bad character flaw; it was a “sin.” But, as I wrote in an earlier blog post, “The Seven Deadly Sins are Now Virtues,” greed now appears to be a necessary component of a capitalist society. Advertising fuels our desire for more stuff, and our celebrity-worshiping culture projects the message that “greed is good.”
An Atlantic magazine article from earlier this year investigates the transition in Western attitudes towards greed over the last few hundred years as capitalism took off. Adam Smith grappled with the problem, and
Smith made abundantly clear that, as a matter of moral assessment, one should distinguish between the intentions of an actor and the broader effects of his actions. Recall the greedy landlord. Yes, the primary aims of his daily labors—vanity, sway, self-indulgence—are far from admirable. But in spite of this fact, his efforts still have the effect of distributing widely “the necessaries of life” such that, “without intending it, without knowing it,” he, and others like him, “advance the interest of society.”
That is, greed was still questionable on a personal level but it did have beneficial effects on the whole. Economists continued to have ambiguous ideas about greed. For example,
John Maynard Keynes suggested that “the economic problem” (which he classed as the “struggle for subsistence”) might actually be “solved” by 2030. Then, Keynes said, we might “dare” to assess the “love of money” at its “true value,” which, for those who couldn’t wait, he described as “a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.” In other words, at last, we could afford to shift our attention from the advantages of greed and to the disadvantages of greedy people.
But by the 1970s, some economists started to shift towards a new view of greed, arguing that the genius of capitalism is that it harnesses people’s survival instincts, which are inherently selfish. In other words being selfish actually makes the economy work. Ayn Rand famously argued this point, writing a book called The Virtue of Selfishness. The Atlantic article continues,
“I think greed is healthy,” an apparent acolyte [of Rand] told the graduating class at Berkeley’s business school in 1986. “You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” The speaker was Ivan Boesky, who shortly thereafter would be fined $100 million, and later go to prison, for insider trading. His address was adapted by Oliver Stone as the basis for Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech in [the film] “Wall Street.”
It used to be that a business or corporation’s purpose included both making a profit and producing something of value for society. Now, however, it’s believed that the only possible purpose of business is profit, and as a result anything and everything is justified if it increases profits. From the New Yorker:
Simon Blackburn, in his new book, Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love writes: “In 1981 the American Business Roundtable could still claim that ‘corporations have a responsibility, first of all, to make available to the public quality goods and services at fair prices. . . . The long-term viability of a corporation depends upon its responsibility to the society of which it is a part.’ How quaint! By 1997 the same organization proclaimed that the principal objective of a business enterprise is to generate economic returns to its owners.”
What has this “greed is good” philosophy brought about? Many environmentalists and scientists think that it is already too late to keep the effects of climate change from destroying, at the very least, human civilization. This is the first line in an essay by an environmentalist
The most common words I hear spoken by any environmentalists anywhere are, We’re fucked.
Werner Herzog’s 2007 documentary, “Encounters at the End of the World,” was filmed in Antarctica. Mr. Herzog met scientists working on various research projects. Dr. Clive Oppenheimer, from Cambridge University, analyzes gas emissions from volcanoes all over the world. Dr. Oppenheimer told Herzog:
There is talk all over the scientific community about climate change. Many of them agree the end of human life on this Earth is assured. Human life is part of an endless chain of catastrophes, the demise of the dinosaurs being just one of these events. We seem to be next.
Human-caused climate change is already bringing about the sixth major extinction event on this planet. Greed is a killer. The only question remaining: will our unrestrained greed also be the killer of the human species?

Image of treasure chest: "Treasure chest color" by Original uploader was The Evil Spartan at en.wikipedia - Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

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