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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A Conservative Case For Raising The Minimum Wage

A Few Variable Facts

150 million Americans benefit from welfare dollars. It is estimated that about 40 to 50 percent of the US population receives some sort of public assistance every year. I am going to call this 150,000,000 people because I like round numbers.

One trillion dollars of taxpayer money goes to welfare programs annually. The total of local, state, and federal welfare dollars slightly exceeds one trillion dollars, which I am going to round to $1,000,000,000,000 because, once again, I like round numbers.

Using simple math, this comes to an average of $6,666 per welfare recipient per year, or $26,600 per year for a family of four. That is one full-time $10.00/hour job plus benefits for that family.

Government overhead consumes 70% of that $1,000,000,000,000. Several experts, such as Robert L. Woodson, estimate that government overhead consumes about 70% of that trillion dollars, leaving about 30% for welfare recipients. Compare that to your average private charity where only 20-30% goes to overhead and 70-80% of the money reaches charity recipients. That means, while the American tax payer pay $26,600 per welfare family, that same family of four only sees about $8,000 in benefits.

Welfare dollars are not wages, and produce zero goods and services. While some welfare dollars go to fund the severely disabled, a lot of welfare dollars represent a subsidy for working class folks who simply cannot make ends meet.

Paying wages for production is better for  corporate profits than paying welfare taxes. For all you conservative, corporate types, shelling out $26,600 in taxes for every poor family of four, knowing at best you will get an $8,000 return, is one of mankind’s most moronic business models. The left-wing, progressive, big government types love you for it. You have just cut off your nose to spite your face. If you could get that family off welfare, you could benefit from their productivity for a lower cost than the taxes you pay to subsidize your own crap wages and 30-hour work weeks. Sure, maybe the prices at Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Old Navy might go up a bit as we reach a new equilibrium, but I cannot think of one good reason the taxpayer should subsidize the low wages of your companies… and you and your executives ARE the tax payers.

Wages Are More Efficient Than Redistribution Via Taxes

In the United States of America virtually every man, woman, and child has a roof over their head, food in their belly, and access to a doctor in an emergency. Out of approximately 2.5 million annual deaths in the U.S., the CDC attributes less than 3,000  to malnutrition, and while about 1 in 500 Americans are considered homeless, exposure and starvation are not listed anywhere among the leading causes of death in that population group.  Considering the nature of Man, America is doing a decent job of taking care of their own. What is troubling is that 40 to 50 percent of Americans receive some sort of government assistance. That means the top 25 percent of income earners, those Americans who earn above $66,000 per year and pay nearly 90 percent of the annual gross tax revenue received by the government, are subsidizing the bottom 50 percent of the population. The top 25 percent are having their wealth redistributed to the poor to give them the basic dignities in life, to the tune of slightly more than $1 trillion per year. That equals an average of about $6600 per person per year for the bottom 50 percent of Americans, or $26,000 of benefits for a family of four, or full-time job at about $10/hour plus benefits for the head of that household.

$26,000 in welfare taxes is what the wealthy pay, but once that money goes through the government welfare apparatus, that family of four only sees about $8,000 of benefits, or the equivalent of a half-time, minimum wage job. The government keeps about 70% of the welfare tax dollars to fund… well… themselves. That means that 70 cents of every $1.00 American businesses pay in welfare taxes, programs many of their low wage employees routinely use to make ends meet, vanishes into the black hole of government waste. The definition of a bad charity is when the bureaucracy is the primary recipient of the charitable dollar. Essentially, America’s business model is to spend $1.00 in charity taxes just to save 50 cents in wages.

Speaking in terms of averages does not paint a fair picture of who actually benefits from the final 30 cents of each welfare dollar. The reality is a relatively small percentage of the bottom 50 percent are consuming the lion’s share of these welfare dollars. I have a paranoid-schizophrenic patient who is incapable of working, yet consumes well over $100,000 of public assistance annually to maintain his little apartment and pay all of his medical bills. Taxpayers pay well over $300,000 annually to keep this poor fellow alive. Alone, he consumes fifty times the average welfare payout, yet will never contribute anything to the American economy. Still, the point remains, the welfare dollar is a significant, yet horribly inefficient, source of income that subsidizes the underpaid and underemployed, yet perfectly capable workers of the United States, and therefore subsidizes their employers.

People Get Stupider And More Foolish Every Day

Like any trait across any species, human traits often track along a bell-shaped curved. For instance, a few people are severely retarded, a few people are incredible geniuses, and the rest of us have intellects that fall somewhere between the two extremes. While it is not politically correct to say it publicly, there are a lot of stupid people in this world. People whose IQ is so low that, no matter how hard they try, they will never be able to learn the skills required to net them a good paying job. There are also a lot of people who, while not clinically insane, have significant psychological defects that make it very difficult for them to perform any sort of valuable work simply because they cannot behave rationally with any sort of consistency. These two groups, people who are stupid and people who are incorrigibly irrational, in my experience in healthcare, make up a good portion of the bottom 50 percent.

Over the past century technology has replaced the majority of decent paying jobs that stupid and irrational people used to perform. Machines have become more reliable, make few mistakes, and never complain. Oh, and machines are mere tools… meaning the only compensation they require is basic maintenance and nothing extra. Powerful computers continue to raise the functional IQ of machines. The machine’s programming, bugs and all, is now more productive and more reliable than a significant percentage of the human population. This state of affairs has essentially made a sizable chunk of mankind virtually useless, and the size of that chunk grows everyday. It is entirely probable that virtually all of the jobs we do today will eventually be replaced by machines. As machines get smarter and more reliable, people look stupider and more irrational.

The Better Mousetrap Will Eventually Build Itself

Man’s natural inclination to compete against one another has given rise to an incredible world, despite all its evils. We fight wars, yes, but we build, create and innovate in order to upstage each other to a much greater degree. A dead enemy is good, but defeating an adversary and making him live with it is great, is it not?  That is the real joy of competition. Just look at the battles that occur daily between Apple and Samsung. Those battles are the battles that build the world, pitting one extraordinarily arrogant architect against another. This intractable desire to win, to be the best, is the golden fleece that pushes industrialists to always do more with less in order to upstage their rivals. They will lie, cheat, bribe, and sometimes kill to win. It is the lowest common denominator that makes them great, and they endlessly seek it in the name of winning, and always collateral damage is someone else’s problem. That is progress, and in America, and for much of the world, it has raised the standard of living for the stupid and irrational beyond their comprehension. Think on how automobiles, cell phones, and internet access are ubiquitous in industrialized nations. Think about how food in North America and Europe is so plentiful and cheap that the impoverished are also obese. The reason the American poor seem to always have enough disposable cash to spend on all sorts of luxuries like tattoos, cigarettes, drugs, junk food, beer, smart phones, and fashionable clothes is these things are really, really cheap in the grand scheme of things. Poverty, as my parents knew it, has been radically redefined to the betterment of our society. Competitive innovation has raised everyone’s standard of living. Except now, all the innovations the human race has created over the last several centuries are starting to make our labor unnecessary. Even as Fortune 500 corporate profits are at record levels, American wages are falling, real unemployment is rising, and welfare payouts are increasing. While Corporate America still needs lots of consumers, they no longer need lots of workers. This reality means we are rapidly reaching the point where the economics of mass production and mass consumption are starting to fail.

This begs the question, at what point does the industrial race to be the first mega-corporation to produce virtually everything at virtually no cost make all of mankind essentially useless? At what point will our labor be of no value because a machine can always do it better, faster and cheaper?  That leaves us, as a race, needing to address a very deep, philosophical question in relatively short order. How are we to survive now and in retirement as a species, keeping that roof over our head, keeping the food in our belly, and taking care of our health, when most of the jobs we use to do have been upstaged by an extremely innovative machine that perform human tasks with near perfection for the price of electricity? How will we “get ahead” in the future? The bell-shaped curve for human intelligence is now being weighted by the intelligence of machines, much to our detriment. Soon nearly all of us will fall into the “too stupid to merit a good wage” category. If we allow most of us to become industrial collateral damage, we will only have ourselves to blame. Right now, the top 25 percent of Americans have to subsidize the wages of the bottom 50 percent of Americans in order that they can live a secure life. Is that the right thing to do? Will this economic model continue to be feasible as the bottom 50 percent grows while the top 25 percent shrinks? Or should we raise the standard minimum wage, cut out the government middleman, and lay claim that the hard labor of even the stupid and irrational is worth a poor, but secure life without subsidy? Honestly, that seems the cheaper, more efficient model for the future, and it acknowledges every person’s hard work is at least worth a roof, food and a doctor’s care. What use is all of our incredible technologies and massive productivity, if a handful of powerful corporations hoard everything except what taxes the government levies to redistribute? In all honesty, what on earth are all these companies going to do with the trillions of dollars they have amassed? Eat it? Roll in it? Build empty vacation homes and luxury yachts that languish unused? Money is like blood, it needs to circulate to prevent social gangrene. With today’s technology and today’s productivity there is more than enough for the bottom 50% to have basic security even after the greedy attain wealth and material goods beyond the dreams of avarice.