Greed

This post includes a quote from my frenemy Tony, which is part of a much longer post on capitalism, and my response.  I think the texts speak for themselves, but I will be interested in your comments.

TONY WROTE:

7. Regarding the morality of profits and so called greed. It appears there is a huge amount of hypocrisy here. Somehow business profits are evil but going after a bigger salary or bargaining for the best price or price shopping or trying to sell something for the best price is somehow not being greedy. Those of you professors who wrote a book. Did you do that for free for the good of your fellow man or did you expect some return or your time and effort? Is not publish or perish to keep your job not greed? If not how is it different? What if you ran your own business? You risked all your savings and good credit and your family’s well being to start the business, worked several years at 80+ hours a week, as I found to be typical in my survey, to turn it into a profitable venture that can support your family. Does anyone really have the right to look down on you as greedy and demand the fruits of your labor on the basis that they don’t have any fruits because they didn’t bother to go through blood swat and tears that you did?? Is that what is meant by social justice? That is what a lot of you are implying. There is this disdain for the entrepreneur i.e you didn’t build that. Yet everything we were sitting on and looking at in the library ultimately came as the fruit of entrepreneurship. That so few have any appreciation of this is what I find astounding. I suppose it is a reflection of our coming demise. As said at the church state meeting, we do indeed lose our freedom when we forget our history. At what point do any of these activities really warrant the greed label?  Why is only a business profit considered greed? At what % profit margin does greed come in?  Supermarkets and Walmart operate at about 2%, is that greed? Health insurance companies operate at 2-3% is that already greed? Oil companies at 8%?   Drug companies 20% (used to anyway), some chip manufacturers at times have gotten to 50%. Do those who wail against greed even know what a profit margin means? Does not appear so.  Those who scream about the greed, what would you put in its place? Are you really so naive to believe that non profits are non profits? 

MY RESPONSE:

Tony asks how we (probably meaning me) would define greed.  He asked in terms of profit margins, which is the wrong measure because different scales of business require different profit margins.  That comes down to how low can you go in price to be competitive and still earn sufficient profit?  That’s a basic issue in micro-economics and a basic issue for anyone running a business.  A giant like Wal-Mart needs a far lower margin than a mom and pop store, which is why the small store has to charge more than the mega-store.  
 
Some do not like to bring ethics and morality into this discussion and issue, but I see that as essential.
 
Consider the last of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not covet.  Biblical commentators are disturbed by this rule.  How can you tell someone not to covet, since wanting more is built into human nature?  (The same question applies to the law “Thou shalt love…”  How can you command love?)  There is a lot of discussion about this in order to make it applicable to human behavior let alone law.
 
The issue is not that we might be envious of what someone else has.  Most people will feel such envy at times.  The only ones who do not are those who are by nature or nurture content.  The Talmud asks, “Who is wealthy?”  The answer given is, “One who is content with what one has.”  My observation is that I have known very wealthy people who are never satisfied with what they have and I have met economically challenged people who are content.  I have also known wealthy people who feel distress because of their wealth.  (Some of you might remember Simon and Garfunkle’s song “Richard Corey.”  I’ll paste the lyrics below my signature.)
 
What distinguishes normal selfish impulses from greed is this.  If one is willing to harm other people or steal from other people to get what they want, that is greed.  It does not matter whether the object of desire is the candy bar in someone else’s lunch box or an entire corporation or nation.  It is the willingness to act on these feelings that is prohibited in the Ten Commandments and, some say is the moral basis for the rest of them.  What causes people to worship something less than God; dishonor parents, violate the Sabbath, murder, steal, commit adultery, lie or swear false oaths is covetousness.
 
I believe that a marketplace without ethics and a system of regulations to enforce ethical behavior is an evil thing.  I think that transcends the liberal-conservative spectrum, which means I believe that those who want an unregulated market are advocating for a dog-eat-dog society without morals.  As it says in the Talmud, “Pray for the welfare of the ruling power, for without it, people would eat each other alive.”
 
So endeth today’s sermon.
 
L’shalom,
Phil
 
 
 
“Richard Cory”

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town,
With political connections to spread his wealth around.
Born into society, a banker’s only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style.

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes:
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show.
And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he’s got.

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
“Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.”

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

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One response to “Greed”

  1. Joshua says :

    This post reminded me of a high holiday sermon you gave a while ago that talked about yetzer hara and how it is a good an natural thing for people to have some inclination towards “evil” intent because that is what allows people to go after the things they need to support themselves and their families.

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