February 3, 2010
The Gordon Gekko Scale of Greed
Over the course of many months thinking about the deadly sins and opposing virtues, I’ve ranged pretty widely. In dealing with Greed and Generosity, I have drawn (so far as I know) the only direct connections yet between Chinese Communism, elves, ostrich farms, and the mortgage crisis. But that’s what being Catholic (from katholikos, or “according to the whole”) is all about — learning to look at the whole world in all its dimensions, exploring its murkiest shadows in the light of remembered truths. And most questions that vex current politics can be best understood by understanding the relationship of justice and mercy. In theory, it’s a simple one: Justice is the foundation of the house and its stress-bearing walls, while mercy provides the windows and the doors. Neglect the first, and you live in a tottering ruin; the second, and you’re in a prison.
But the point of these reflections isn’t to change the way you vote but to help you achieve the Golden Mean of virtue in daily life. That means avoiding the sin of Greed without lurching over sideways into Prodigality, learning to give liberally without enabling the wasteful. We must not, to paraphrase Scripture, eat up our substance with prodigal giving — particularly when we’re speaking of wealth or rights that belong to our fellow citizens. Taking part in a partly free economy, many of us are offered frequent temptations to act greedily, and it’s hard to know where or when to stop. In a culture that has tacitly decided (long about 1688) to shelve religious questions and concentrate on getting rich, it’s all too easy to see accumulating property as a virtuous end in itself. Dostoevsky, of all people, called money “coined freedom,” and who wouldn’t want more of that? Well, Dostoevsky for one, who threw his wealth away most prodigally at the gambling tables, and only embraced Christianity while serving in a labor camp.
So we’re ringed round with paradoxes, and the issues aren’t simple. In search of those clinking little icons of liberty, we can easily enslave ourselves to workaholic habits, or corrupt our friendships and even our families by commercializing them — for instance, when you try to recruit your college pals into a pyramid scheme, or nix your chance at marriage by wrangling over a pre-nup. Perhaps the best approach is one proposed by Catholic philanthropist Frank Hanna, whose book What Your Money Means proposes a deeply biblical approach. Going back to the parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30 and Lk 19:12-27), he suggests we think of every natural good that God has given us as something precious we’ve been entrusted to use in unique way. Had God other plans for each gift, He would have given it to someone else. With that fact in mind, we should husband our resources prudently, aware that on Judgment Day we’ll be called to account for each of them. That’s not the time you want to be on your hands and knees with a trowel.
Keep that image in your head as you take my Trademark-Busting Cosmo-Style Quiz™, to see where you fall on the Gordon Gekko Scale. Take out your pencil and score yourself carefully — the answer might affect your credit rating.
The Quiz: If someone you know who runs a successful business — a friendly acquaintance — approaches you to do a job for him, and offers you a fee that’s three times your going rate, what do you do? (Assume for the sake of argument that you’re not in desperate financial straits — which nowadays means that you’ve either been hoarding gold, or else that you live and pay taxes in Switzerland.)
a) You take the money and run. It’s a free country, and this fellow is free to make his own mistakes. It’s not your job to run his business for him. Let him learn from experience — or better still, keep throwing money your way. You do a decent job, but don’t exert yourself, since this guy is clearly not on the ball. When you’re paid, you go to your investment research and find the highest-yielding stocks you can, which it turns out are in companies producing anti-personnel landmines — a business that’s positively booming over in Africa.
b) You take the money and agonize about it, worrying that you might be doing something dishonest, but finally reassuring yourself on that point. Then you start to fear that your client will figure out his mistake, and never hire you again. In fact, he’s liable to figure things out and bad-mouth you to other potential customers. You’re tempted to give the money back, but then you’d have to explain yourself, and he’d think you were an idiot. You spend far too much time on this job, to the detriment of other projects. In the end, you feel so rotten that you stick the money in a mattress. And you never approach this client again.
c) You genially tell the fellow he’s offering you too much moolah, and you want to keep his business. You’re careful not to make him feel foolish, and you feel a bit magnanimous. So you undertake the task at something closer to your regular price, and do a bang-up job, confident that you’ll likely be working with this guy again in a healthy, cooperative partnership. Still, you’re kind of wistful about what you could have done with the extra money.
d) Sure, take the money, and get the job done quickly because you’re busy. This fellow obviously doesn’t need the cash, and you do — for instance, to help your brother-in-law pay off that loan shark who’s on him for his gambling debts. Or to “lend” as first and last months’ rent to your old college pal who flunked out of rehab and has been living on your couch for seven months. Come to think of it, maybe you’re just going to spend it all on bourbon. God, could you use a drink right now. Might as well get the good stuff. You deserve it.
If you picked:
a) You are clearly a Gekko and have just grown a bright new layer of green, spotted skin. While you might come out ahead for the moment, you are indeed likely to lose this fellow’s business. A thousand little decisions like yours are what make people skinflints and break down the trust that makes a free market possible in the first place. A few decades of this business culture, and what you end up with is Russia — not Commie Russia but Yeltsin’s Russia, where oligarchs tool around in armor-plated Bentleys with hulking skinhead bodyguards named Boris, and only take payment in cash, opium, or vans full of blonde teenagers. I suggest you try to internalize the catchy biblical dictum, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Imagine that Christ meant it literally, and try — just for today — to put it into practice.
b) Stop torturing yourself. The money isn’t worth it. Yes, you’ve been taught that it’s your Prime Directive to acquire as much wealth as you can without breaking the law, to work as many hours as required to stockpile extensive financial reserves that can serve as a cushion in case of disaster, and even to buy yourself a burial plot well in advance so you can get it on clearance. But this might just be the time to remember the Gospel verse about the lilies of the field and the little birdies. To take some time off and make a retreat — with Franciscans. The hard-core kind who sleep on the floor and don’t have telephones or Web sites.
c) You’re approaching the proper balance of ethics and acquisitiveness. It’s not surprising you found the offer tempting, and if the circumstances had been different (say, your family desperately needed the money) you’d have acted differently. But given your situation, your sense of integrity was worth more to you than the money. Now, don’t start getting smug or blasé about this; who knows if next year you might be in such dire straits that you’d have to act differently? Remember that it’s easy to feel magnanimous when things are going well. Pray for guidance in wise stewardship of all your resources and talents.
d) It sounds like you’re good at your job — the problem is that you’re no longer a carpenter or psychiatrist. You’ve become a full-time enabler, and there isn’t even a union. By trying to siphon “extra” resources from those who “don’t need it” to give to “poor souls” who will waste it, you’ve set yourself up as a tiny microcosm of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. You’ve been using Danish taxpayers’ money to grow a mountain of cheese in France, and the smell is finally getting to you. I’d say it’s high time you meditated on the parables of the talents and did some research on Misguided Compassion. Get hold of Hanna’s book and keep it by your bedside, alongside Co-Dependency for Dummies.