Greed: We’re rolling in it

by Kristin on March 23, 2009

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by zack Maccarthy

I’ve always been generally aware of and saddened by the presence of greed in our world. The history books are filled with stories about people who have cheated and stolen and hurt others to get what they think will make them happy.

Lately, though, it seems like greed is everywhere. It’s around every corner, sitting right out in the open. It’s stacked in complex layers upon layers of “I want,” and “I must have.” In the news, greed is at the heart of half the headlines, and in the other half, you can surely find it embedded somewhere—at least in every negative, heartbreaking story.

There are obvious examples, like Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, perhaps the greatest financial scandal and example of greed in our time. And we can’t possibly overlook the recent report that possibly more than $200 million in bonuses are being given to the very AIG executives that got the insurance company in trouble in the first place, requiring a federal bailout of $182.5 billion.

But there are other, less obvious stories, too. Like the Pennsylvania judges who allegedly took $2.6 million in exchange for unfairly sentencing juveniles to privately run youth detention centers. And we also found out that New York Yankee star A-Rod, the highest-paid player in baseball, has been working his magic with some help from steroids.

The examples of greed in our world just don’t run out. And I’ve realized that greed doesn’t sadden me any more, like it used to. It makes me flat-out angry. Enraged is probably a better word for how I feel.

Getting more comfortable with righteous anger

I wrote a post recently about my general dislike for the Old Testament (Learning from the parts I don’t like). One of my biggest problems with the Old Testament has been “…the long line of cruel kings, the blood and revenge, the famines and plagues…and the wrathful anger of God.” Huh. That sounds frighteningly familiar.

It’s a good thing I’m slowly getting into the Old Testament a bit more, because one of our pastors is teaching a series on Isaiah 49, and in our small group we’re studying Habakkuk. Last week we talked about chapter 2—ancient scenarios that sidle up too neatly with our current contours. Check this out (Habakkuk 2:9):

Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain
to set his nest on high, to escape the clutches of ruin!
You have plotted the ruin of many peoples,
shaming your own house and forfeiting your life.

Sounds sort of like it was in today’s New York Times, doesn’t it? OK, I admit, the reporter would have to be a very old, strange dude with a penchant for drama, but still. Eerie. (There are several similar verses in a row, if you want to read the whole chapter.)

There’s enough blame for all of us

Overall, there’s a lot I don’t know. I’m still struggling to wrap my mind around Habakkuk 2 and how it ultimately relates. If I figure it out, I’ll fill you in.

I also don’t know what to do about the greed that’s rampant, and the people who are hurting because of it. I’m not sure what to do with my anger, either. I believe there’s such a thing as righteous anger, and that it can be fuel for extending justice and mercy to those who have been wronged.

But I also know I’m not innocent of this greed. No one is.

And while I want desperately to point the finger, I heard a February 27 NPR story that put things into perspective. David Beim, a Columbia Business School professor, explained a chart that shows the history of consumer debt in relation to the national GDP. Usually, consumer debt represents 50 percent of the GDP. Between 2000 and 2008, it has risen to 100 percent.

“That chart is the most striking piece of evidence that I have that what is happening to us is something that goes way beyond toxic assets in banks. It’s something that has little to do with the mechanics of mortgage securitization, or ethics on Wall Street, or anything else,” Beim says. “It says: The problem is us. The problem is not the banks, greedy though they may be, overpaid though they may be. The problem is us.

We have overborrowed, Beim says: “We’ve been living very high on the hog. Our living standard has been rising dramatically in the last 25 years. And we have been borrowing much of the money to make that prosperity happen.”

The line runs through us

I’m not saying that Madoff shouldn’t be in jail, or that the AIG executives should get their bonuses. I’m still incredibly angry about those things, and feel immense compassion for everyone who’s suffering because of that greed.

But there’s a fine line between righteous anger and self-righteous anger. It’s time for me to examine my own greed—for all of us to claim some responsibility for this mess we’re in, and to think about how we can change how we live.

We can’t draw a line in the sand and put the bad guys on one side and the good guys on the other. As one of the pastors at my church once said, the line doesn’t run between us, it runs through us.

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  • Trina

    Food for thought to be sure. We definately need to take responsibility for our own decisions as it relates to debt etc. All the marketing we faced to say it was OK to have it all now and pay later, all the institutions making it easy for us to live a life on credit, were all preying on the public from a position of greed. It made it way too easy for many to fall into the have it all trap, but you’re right – time to face it. Incidently, I think ‘we’ will all be better off for learning this lesson now, many will have time to recover. As long as we remember it for the long haul.

  • jessica

    I was that spender too but I have to say for the last 9 years, I have not been. I feel absolute in the knowledge that I did not live beyond my means in that time.

    could I say the same for my ex who loves labels and people to think he is rich? Hell no.

    I am enraged, yes, enraged and sometimes I cannot even read the paper as I feel so damn powerless over the whole thing

  • TJ Hirst

    Great point: “But there’s a fine line between righteous anger and self-righteous anger.” How often do we talk about they and get more and more angry at them? And how often do we ask like the Peter did at the Last Supper, “Is it I?”

  • Nicola

    I heard that commentary on NPR and it’s really made me think a lot about my own lifestyle and choices we’ve made. While we certainly don’t live too “high on the hog,” we also have allowed ourselves to amass a shocking (to me) amount of debt. Granted, we knew we were making some sacrifices in our financial position so my husband could change careers, but the point is, we DIDN”T make any sacrifices in our actual lifestyle at the same time. Hence, the debt. I guess we’ll pay now. But, I wonder why we didn’t adjust at the time.

  • Nic D

    It sounds like Jessica’s ex-husband represents a creature we all know — the individual who is trying to appear wealthy (because that makes everyone like you, right!?).

    Though it’s been upsetting, I haven’t been altogether surprised by the collapse of so much in the last year or so. I think you hit on an interesting point, Kristin, when you discuss the possibility that we might be the ones who are at fault. While the systems that are falling apart were created by someone else, the systems were created because people demanded them in one way or another. If someone wanted to prove they were cool by driving a shiny car, there was (and still is) someone out there who would figure out a way to get them into that car. If they wanted a big house — No problem! A couch for that new living room? YES! They’d make that happen too!

    These industries, while they still cause problems for people, are regulated. The industry Madoff worked in is not. If the regulated portion of the financial industry could consistently give you a 20% return, they would have. Since they couldn’t, we should have, and many did, suspected Madoff was doing something fishy.

    In the end, we know that Madoff was lying to his clients. And while he is to blame, I think it’s important that we understand that what he did was simple – he created a product that people wanted. Something that made people feel good. Like so many things, fancy cars, nice houses and a new couch, a 20% annual return made people feel good. He knew people wanted this, and though he lied through and through, he gave them what they wanted…to be rich and beat the odds (do better than you would with traditional investments). We now know that those who went with Madoff made a bad gamble.

    It’s such an ugly picture, but it seems the solution, if we were to try to generalize, is to stop wanting. It’s a basic economic principle. If the demand for “want” goes down, the products that are created to satisfy “want” will not sell and ultimately not be produced.

    So, there you go, everyone. Stop wanting! :)

  • Blackwasp19

    Most of the time we view the Old Testament prophets, both minor and major, to be concerning some “other” as if the texts are talking about those “bad people” but surely not everyone. This view limits us from understanding the crux of the prophets. The words spoken were for everyone, each person played apart in the greed, sin and injustice of Hebraic society. They were not words to the elites or those explicitly participating in grotesque manifestations of greed, they were to all of those who lived selfish lives regardless of the early magnitude of that selfishness.

    In the present, it seems we also view greed from an “others” perspective, “It was Madoff, the realtors, or AIG who got us into this mess. It was wall-street”. We forget that their humanness is our humanness. In our self-righteousness we neglect that our desire to buy a new car, a bigger house, or even somethings as simple as CD’s contributed to the mess we are in. The Old Testament prophets concentrated on the ills of not caring for one another, not living in community, not caring for those whom may need to – financially, socially, emotionally. These are the same shortcomings we as a society and as individuals are guilty of. The economic situation that we are in now has been a present reality for the working-poor and many who come from lower socio-economic statuses. This is nothing new, the only reason we feel it now is because we have realized that it effects us.

    One other element. Habakkuk mean “embrace”. That is what this specific book is about, the embracing the reality that society was going to be invaded (by the Babylonians) and embracing that God was still God regardless and that Yaweh is perfect, loving, holy, and just. In many ways the book of Habakkuk offers great hope to its readers. God speaks to Habbakuk not only about the ramifications of greed and pride, but also the peace that one can have if they are a righteous person of God.

  • Kristin T.

    Trina, I think you’re right—we will be better off in the long run for learning how to curb our wants now. As parents always say, sometimes you have to learn something the hard way if you’re really going to take it to heart.

    Jessica, the powerlessness is the worst part of all of this, for me. Investing in a punching bag might quell some of the rage many of us feel, but it’s not going to fix the ultimate problem, or make life any easier for the people who are struggling most, day to day.

    TJ, one of the reasons my husband and I get along so well is because we both love to get worked up about things like politics, injustice and anything we hear on the news and perceive as general stupidity. We realized a few months ago, though, that although it can be fun and even energizing to get worked up and express outrage, it’s not productive. What if we spent as much time and energy praying about these issues and actively working for change and justice, as we spent complaining?

    Nicola, I’m with you—”high on the hog” isn’t exactly how I’d describe our lifestyle. But I also relate to what you’re saying about how we’ve seemed to lost the ability to make budget adjustments and cut back on things when and where such cuts are needed (like if there’s a change in job or income, or a big expenditure like a move or a wedding and honeymoon.) We just keep moving through life, going out to eat as often as we always have, planning our next vacation and going overboard at Christmas and birthdays. I think we’ve gotten the idea that our quality of life is supposed to gradually rise throughout our lives, so it just doesn’t occur to us to make adjustments that send us in the “wrong” direction.

    Nic, this is a great point: “While the systems that are falling apart were created by someone else, the systems were created because people demanded them in one way or another.” It seems to me that being able to accept our role in a mess, even if it’s a minor one, and actively taking some responsibility is a huge part of true maturity. It’s also a critical aspect of being whole. And I love your solution: lowering the demand for “want.”

    Blackwasp19, I was hoping someone with some theological insight would come along. Thanks! You hit on what’s at the core of Habakkuk 2: pride is at the root of all evil, and it’s everywhere, taking many forms. Finger pointing is a waste of time. I’m also really glad that you bring up the “ills of not caring for one another,” and that you point out the ongoing struggles of the working poor—struggles that were realities long before the nation-wide economic downturn. What if all the greed could be exchanged for compassion, mercy and justice?