Three-and-a-half years ago, in this column, I wrote an article titled: There’s No Such Thing as Being Stubborn. It has been one of my most controversial works, and most read. In it I stated that stubborn is a non-word like greed. I will now follow up and explain why I say the word greed is phony.
Have you ever called someone greedy? Have you been accused of greed? Here is the definition of GREED according to the American Heritage® Dictionary: (greed) noun. An excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves, especially with respect to material wealth.
Greed then is just desire with the added adjective excessive. Wait a minute — isn’t that what we call ambition? So, who gets to determine what level of excessive desire becomes greed? Is it like United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s description of hard-core pornography: "I’ll know it when I see it?" That’s not only vague, it’s completely subjective, and a frightening standard on which to determine the law of the land.
American Heritage goes on to say, "possess more than one needs." Another subjective standard — who gets to determine how much someone needs? Then it says, "possess more than one deserves." Now we are getting somewhere. How can someone acquire more than they deserve? No one is going to give someone more than they deserve. No one is going to pay more for something than they think it’s worth. That means the person who gets more than they deserve must have done something nefarious to get it, such as swindling, extortion, cheating, or some other form of chicanery. In other words, greed boils down to one thing: theft.
But, you say, greed is the motivation that causes people to steal. I say, the reason people steal varies greatly. They might be hungry, or on drugs, or unemployed, or not smart enough to get a job. I can’t read a person’s mind to determine why they steal, I can only observe that they do.
If you call someone greedy, you are, in essence, calling them a thief. However, if they haven’t stolen anything, then they have not taken more than they deserve. In the famous words of the John Houseman, Smith Barney ad, they make money the old fashioned way — they earn it.
If you are still calling them greedy, then the problem lies within you. If you don’t like the amount of possessions or wealth someone has, then perhaps you are envious. If that’s the case, then you calling that person greedy is all about you projecting your envy.
In order for most people to acquire great wealth, they have to come up with a good idea, an innovation, or as Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, build a better mousetrap that will cause the world to beat a path to their door. In other words, they have to serve humanity. They have to create something people want.
Just because you’ve earned more than you need, you don’t stop doing what you did to make it. The world would be a much poorer place if you did. What if Bill Gates had stopped making computer software after he made his first billion? Sure, someone else would eventually enter that market, but until then the price of software would go up.
Over the years, I’ve seen various products that I loved disappear from the market. The most likely cause was that there was not enough demand for those products for the companies to continue making them, but occasionally it was because the producer got "tired" of working and retired. Hmm… perhaps I should say that person is greedy for wanting their time more than they want to produce things I love.
Maybe you think acquiring ostentatious homes, cars, and clothing make a person greedy. You might snidely call them nouveau riche. Indeed their taste might be tacky, but if you have any empathy you can see that they are just trying to feel important. Everybody wants to feel important, and that isn’t greed. Feel sorry for them, it takes time to learn how to enjoy enormous wealth with grace.
What about corporate greed you ask? Again, no such thing. First of all corporations, like other inanimate objects, cannot feel greed. They are owned by people called stockholders. Are the stockholders greedy for wanting to invest in a company that is growing? You’d think they were idiots if they invested in a company that was failing. So, then is it the people running the company who are greedy because they earn huge salaries? They only get those salaries if they are producing wealth for the stockholders. So once again, it is earned wealth, they haven’t stolen it.
What about corporations that bribe Congress to pass regulations that keep out competition? Aren’t they greedy? No, they are thieves. By using the strong arm of the government to get an unfair advantage over competitors, they reduce options and choices which cost consumers more money. And, regardless of how legal it is, it is still morally theft.
But, what about companies that produce shoddy — even dangerous — products just to make a buck, aren’t they being greedy? Again, no. If it is a hidden danger, then they are being dishonest and stealing from the purchaser. If it is known to be inferior, then it is the consumer’s decision whether or not to buy it. People willingly buy substandard products to fulfill needs until they can afford something better.
When I was in college, I lived in a mouse-and-roach-infested apartment in a seedy neighborhood. Was I being exploited by a greedy landlord? No, the rent was cheap, and I was thrilled to get it because it enabled me to live on my own.
There is an old saying in the advertising industry: Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising. Good advertising will get a lot of people to try a new product, and it the product doesn’t measure up, then word-of-mouth will spread quickly and people will stop buying it. Greedy companies don’t want that to happen, so they make good products instead.
Surely hoarders are greedy? They squirrel away much more than they need. Do they? Perhaps they were a victim of scarcity at some point in their life and they have a deep fear of going hungry again. Fear is not greed.
If you hear someone using the word greed to describe another person, then I suggest you scrutinize the person using it, and ascertain what their motivation is. Politicians love to use it to create division among voters because it helps them to get elected. The word greed is a red flag to think critically.
Calling someone greedy is often used to shame people into donating money they’d rather keep. I remember back in 1997, that Ted Turner, after announcing he would donate $1 billion over the course of a decade to the United Nations, publicly shamed Bill Gates for not donating more money to charity. It worked and Gates formed a foundation for donating billions of dollars to various causes.
If someone pressures you to share your money by calling you greedy, then they are asking you to give up the precious moments of your life that you spent earning it. Time you can never get back. If they bamboozle you into feeling bad, so that you give them money you don’t want to, then what makes them different from a con artist? Who’s the greedy one now?
Greed exists only in the mind of the observer. If you are seeing greed, perhaps it’s time for you to examine your heart.
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