Greed Motivates and Destroys
Greed has two faces; one that can spur us to great achievements and the other that can turn us into avaricious graspers without a moral compass.
All the world’s religions warn against falling into the clutches of greed.
The Islamic scholar Imam Abu Dawud cautioned “Watch out for greed because the people before you perished from it.”
The New Testament says (Luke 12:15) “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
The Old Testament tells us (Proverbs 15:27) “He who is greedy of gain destroys his own house, but he who hates gifts shall live.”
Buddhists believe that greed is one of the Three Poisons (the others are hate and ignorance) that lead to evil.
The person controlled by greed can never have enough. Satisfying the drive for greed pushes some people into appalling behaviour.
Greed is “a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.”
The German social psychologist Erich Fromm
Crash and Burn
War profiteering is as old as war. Nations in conflict are usually in a state of semi-organized chaos. Contracts are awarded in a hurry and oversight is minimal. It’s the perfect environment for greedy people to score big.
During World War II, some American pilots were sent into combat with unsafe aircraft. The Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical Corporation built engines that were used in several aircraft including the single-engine P40.
The company knew defective parts were being installed in the engines. Government inspectors also knew the engines might conk out at any time. Testing was falsified and the engines passed as good to go. Planes crashed and pilots died.
In later testimony, it emerged that government inspectors who passed all engines were wined and dined by the company. Those who found fault with poor quality parts were fired because the company had connections in high government ranks.
People and companies made obscene profits long before World War II. They have done so in every conflict since. But, it’s not necessary to be a gigantic corporation to be greedy; it’s a curse among individuals as well.
Something seems to snap in some people when Grandma dies and her estate is divided up. Old resentments among family members come to the surface when one or more feel they have been cheated in the will. Estate lawyer Howard Black told The Toronto Star that in such cases “There is jealousy. There is greed. There is envy.”
There’s the sad story of John Kaptyn. He settled in Canada from Holland in 1954. He died in 2007 at the age of 81 having amassed a $75-million fortune in real estate. He left most of his wealth to his grandchildren, bypassing his sons Henry and Simon. The brothers, who do not get along, contested the will.
The case was handed to Justice David Brown of Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice, and he clearly found it troublesome. He warned the brothers their battle had the makings of a repeat of Jarndyce and Jarndyce (see below).
By 2012, the legal costs had risen to $6 million and the issue was still not resolved.
Even modest estates can create family feuds that destroy the value of the will.
Rewards at the Top
The Calgary-based energy producer Encana was having a rough time. The price of oil had dropped from more than $110 a barrel in mid-2014 to below $30 a barrel at the start of 2016.
Encana lost $5.2 billion (U.S.) in 2015. The value of its shares plunged 57 percent. Six hundred employees lost their jobs. Meanwhile, Chief Executive Officer Doug Suttles saw his own pay increase by 14 percent in 2015 to $8.8 million.
In 2020, the company changed its name to Ovintiv Inc., and folded its operations in Canada.
Pipeline company Enbridge is another corporation hard hit by the downturn in the energy sector. It lost $37 million in 2015, watched as it share price fell 23 percent, and also fired 600 employees. The company’s head, Al Monaco, got a 50 percent increase in his total pay package to $8.9 million.
Same story at Suncor. Two billion dollar loss and 1,700 jobs cut; $12.2 million pay for CEO Steve Williams included a 33 percent higher cash bonus.
Greed is Good
Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, recognized that greed drives economies, only he called it enlightened self-interest. He used the example of a butcher to illustrate the point. Butchers don’t sell meat because of some goodness in their souls; they sell meat to make money. The more meat they sell the more money they make. So, their self-interest guides them to sell the best meat they can at the best price. As a result, society benefits.
It turns out that most humans prefer to live in an economy that rewards innovation, ambition, and hard work.
The carrot of making more money prompts many to put in extra effort. Productive activity is unleashed by the prospect of greater wealth. Societies that have ignored that principle have failed.
Without greed, a person, community, or society may lack the motivation to build or achieve, move, or change―and may also be rendered more vulnerable to the greed of others.”
Psychiatrist Dr. Neel Burton, Psychology Today, October 2014
A century ago, some nations experimented with communism. The theory was that everybody worked for the good of the state, which ensured that nobody suffered from want or neglect. But, the theory was tripped up by human nature. If everybody received the same rewards whether they busted a gut or goofed off then most people chose to take it easy. The result was an economy that could only make poor quality goods and services very inefficiently and could not properly feed its people.
Self-interest overcomes this but can turn toxic when it becomes selfish interest. This is where we meet psychiatrist Neel Burton. He writes in Psychology Today, that “While greed may be good for economies, it may not be so good for individuals.”
Some people become consumed by greed and will do anything to gather more of what they crave whether money, admiration, power, or something else. Such a quest overcomes compassion, love, and humanity and destroys families, communities, businesses, and entire economies.
- Charles Dickens created the fictional court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in his 1853 novel Bleak House. The case centres on a large inheritance that is fought over by members of the Jarndyce family. Dickens based his story on real lawsuits that were taking years to settle in Britain’s Chancery Court. In the end, Jarndyce and Jarndyce is resolved but the winner receives nothing because every last penny of the estate has been consumed by legal fees. It bears a remarkable resemblance to Jennens and Jennens. William “the Miser” Jennens died in 1798 with a fortune of around $427 million in today’s money. He did not have a will, so proceedings began to determine who should receive his riches. The case was finally abandoned in 1915 when legal fees had consumed everything in the estate.
- Chrematophobia is the fear of money.
- “Family Feud a Test of Wills.” Tracey Tyler, Toronto Star, February 12, 2011.
- “Pay up, Shareholders.” Janet McFarland, Globe and Mail, June 6, 2016.
- “Is Greed Good?” Dr. Neel Burton, Psychology Today, October 6, 2014.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor