A Matter of Greed

‘Surrounding myself with possessions

I surely have more than I need

I don’t know if this is justice, hard earned

Or simply a matter of greed’

Dan Fogelberg, Loose Ends

LUKE 16: 16-21 – THE PARABLE OF GREED

“There was once a rich man who, having had a good harvest from his land, thought to himself, ‘What am I to do? I have not enough room to store my crops. Then he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones, and store all my grain and my goods in them, and I will say to my soul: My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come; take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time’. But God said to him, ‘Fool, This very night the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?’ So it is when a man stores up treasure for himself in place of making himself rich in the sight of God.”

Greed is like pornography; it is a corrupted reflection of human virtue, it titillates most people whether they are rich or poor, and despite its obvious existence, it is hard to define and pin down in a legal sense. The pursuit of wealth, just like the sexual conquest, is wholly glorified in nearly every society on Earth. That is why the wealthy hire the sweat of honest men and take the lion’s share, while the poor purchase lottery tickets in hopes of changing their caste. The idea of extreme wealth, especially the sort of wealth that is attained instead of earned, has a hypnotic grip on much of society.

$4,000,000 IS ENOUGH

Where does “enough” end and “too much” begin? That is both an easy and a hard question to answer. I believe a person should try to get the best job possible and negotiate the best pay possible. Whether you are a kid looking for summer work or a CEO, you should always aim for the moon, for the pursuit of a secure life is a rational endeavor. About 1% of us, meaning those who annually earn over $350,000, through hard work, good fortune, and perhaps a bit of dishonesty, actually hit the moon and afford themselves a luxurious life. Instead of feeling envy, the rest of us should applaud their hard work, for the vast majority of them truly earned their success and eventual comfort in retirement.

However, there is only so much a man’s stomach can hold, so to speak. There comes a point where wealth becomes so extreme it simply cannot be rationally spent on security and material goods. For instance, $10 million will get you the world’s most expensive sports car… and Scotland’s Brixwold Castle as a driveway. Apple CEO, Tim Cook, earned that much in 9&½  days last year. He has so much money he will never be able to spend it all… at least not on himself and his family… and money certainly can no longer hold any real meaning for the man. He has a vast treasure chest. A massive hoard. There is nothing, no luxury on Earth, that he cannot afford in an offhand fashion. When he joined Apple in 1998 the company stock was worth about $7 a share. Now it is worth about $500 a share. His hoard is well earned. Now that Steve Jobs is dead, what Tim Cook does with the hoard, well, that determines whether he is ruled by greed.

Fifty percent of Americans make less than $27,000 per year. The average wage in America, an average heavily skewed by the top 1% of income earners, is about $43,000. That means the average, hardworking Joe on the street can expect to earn between $1.3 million and $2.1 million between the ages of 15 and 65 years, adjusted for inflation of course. That means, in round numbers, the average American’s lifetime of work is worth about $2 million to the rest of American society. It is enough to independently afford the basic necessities in life, and perhaps support a small, frugal family.

In 2010 the IRS processed about 143 million individual tax returns (apparently less than fifty percent of Americans have taxable income). Of those tax returns, about 1% or 1.43 million earned more than $350,000. Of the 1.43 Million “one-percenters” just over 100,000, or 7%, of individual tax returns showed a gross income in excess of $2 million dollars. That means out of approximately 143 million working Americans roughly 1 in 1430, or 0.07%, claimed to have done a lifetime’s worth of work in a one year or less. These are the people who, having hit the moon, negotiated for and received the stars.

To be comfortable in retirement, many financial experts are going to guess that a married couple will need about $2 million or so of today’s dollars. So if a frugal man earns $2 million this year, that could conceivably last him until retirement. If he earns $2 million again next year, that could, the Lord willing and the Creek don’t rise, last him for the rest of his life as long as he invests it conservatively. $4 million, adjusted for inflation, is enough for a secure life. EVERYTHING he earns after that first $4 million is pure luxury. The exclusive mansion, the vacation home, the luxury automobile, and the international ski vacation all come from his luxury earnings. He may absolutely, fully earn and deserve every last penny, but it does not change the fact that to earn a lifetime’s worth of income in one year or less is a luxury. Regardless of his deserving, if he is not in absolute awe that he has managed to garner such extraordinary riches through his efforts and good fortune, then greed is dulling his senses. If he lied, cheated, bent or broke the law, or caused another person harm on the way to his glorious earnings, greed defines everything that he is.

GREED IS NOT NECESSARILY DEFINED BY WEALTH AND PROFIT

Justin Bieber ($57 million in 2012), Ben Roethlisberger ($13.6 million in 2013), Elvis Presley ($55 million in 2011), and the Kardashians ($65 million in 2010) are good examples of fabulously wealthy, yet peculiarly controversial entertainers who have honestly earned every penny of their income from their fans. Their wealth is not a reflection of greed so much as a reflection of the value society places on crude entertainment. I love a good football game (especially when the Steelers lose… extra especially if they lose to the Packers), and it is a treat many people are willing to spend money to see! You might find fault with these entertainers’ character, but do not fault them their good fortune.

Ruthless entrepreneurs, such as Phil Knight and Bill Gates, have amassed great fortunes making and selling stuff that has improved the quality of our lives. As a society we love their talent and ingenuity, and voluntarily contribute to their extraordinary wealth by purchasing their products, therefore most every penny they have is well earned. As a matter of fact, most Americans do direct business with most of America’s Fortune 100 companies. These companies, excepting the conglomerates like Berkshire Hathaway, directly provide the products and services we need and want. They earn their wealth directly from consumers. Even if you eschew these mega-companies for their smaller competitors, a bit of profit is built into every dollar you spend, no matter where.

Profit is not the problem. How a person or company generates profits, and how they utilize those profits are the spiritually defining actions. For instance, Warren Buffett, a very congenial, grandfatherly fellow, does not really create any goods or services. Unlike Bill Gates and Phil Knight, his job is to simply generate money for the sake of money. For instance, I own a nice pair of Tony Lama boots. Mr. Buffett does not know the first thing about boots, but he did buy the Tony Lama name in 2000, so a portion of the money I paid for those boots went to Mr. Buffett. He makes his money by buying low and selling high. He buys other men’s creations, tries to make them more efficient and then skims the profits. Rather than earning money, he acquires it, and that tends to lean towards falling under the auspices of avarice. While he seems a pleasant, amenable fellow, his character – what he takes to the grave – will ultimately be determined by what good he does the world with the fathomless mass of wealth he has very cleverly acquired over the course of his life. It is a state of being I do not envy. Will he build bigger barns or will he see fit to make the world a better place for humanity? It is entirely up to him. What ever he decides, when he dies he takes only his character with him. Do not get me wrong. I know nothing about Warren Buffett the man or his intentions. He simply and eloquently demonstrates the fork in the road that every man and woman of his stature faces every day when they wake up in the morning. Do they bring succor to the lowly, or do they keep for themselves what they can never use? The very reason I mention Warren Buffett, Phil Knight, and Bill Gates here is that, regardless of what they have done along the way, they have become generous men who charitably give a substantial portion of their success to help improve the conditions of their fellow man. Of the 100,000 or so Americans who possess luxurious wealth, these men are now setting the good example when it comes to sustained philanthropy, and they make a difference.

GREED IS A STATE OF MIND, NOT A NUMBER

Ultimately, greed is an unbridled, unrestrained, and insatiable state of mind. It is the main gateway to the Seven Deadly Sins. Greed suffers no logic or rational mind, therefore cannot be debated. It will never admit defeat and cannot be killed, for it lives in us all. It revels in the violation of God’s commandments. Greed promises euphoric contentment, yet only delivers a debased, sadistic misery to those who embrace it tenets. First it is callous, then it is autocratic, and then it grows cruel as it tries to rob others of the one thing it can never attain – peace of mind. Its only weakness is that everyone is free to reject it. Every person, rich or poor, who is beholden to greed, does so voluntarily. Thankfully, many of America’s wealthiest eventually see past the false promise of greed and begin to give of their largess in hopes of making the world a better place. Shamefully, some do not… at least not yet… but there is always tomorrow.

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