Wealth and Greed

A damp yard awaits my Saturday ministrations; here I write, coffee at hand,  hoping the sun breaks through and dries it a bit…

Like almost all words and ideas used in modern political shouting matches – can’t justify calling them discussions, let alone arguments – wealth and greed are slippery terms. Attempts to define them in actions will 1) fail; and 2) likely get you called names. And, in truth, they defy definition, as they are almost without exception used as implied comparatives: wealth is noticeably more than I have; greed is keeping noticeably more than I keep. What, if anything, wealth and greed are in themselves is stubbornly avoided.(1)  Even considered as comparatives, the formula is, it seems, very flexible: Bernie can make more money than I do (he does), use that income to care for fewer people than I do (ditto), have his retirement funded to a degree I could only dream of, own more real estate that I do, including a newly-purchased vacation home, give far less to charities out of that income – yet, in the eyes of his followers, I am wealthy and greedy because I have more stuff than most of them do. (2)  Bernie is sweetness and light itself.

Go figure.

How about taking a stab at a less subjective definition not based on a comparison? I think most people who are not Ayn Rand would agree with that the principles expressed in the tradition corporal works of mercy represent some baseline of our duties to each other:(3)

  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To harbor the harborless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead.

A poor person, a person lacking wealth, would be in this light one needing food, drink, clothing, a place to stay, comfort in their illness, freedom from captors, and, finally, burial at time death.

Now, here’s the tricky part: someone who is not poor has food, drink, clothing, a place to stay, people to visit him when sick; is not a captive and, I suppose, has had arrangements made for his burial.

So: a non-comparative definition of wealth in itself could be: the possession of more than adequate food, drink, clothing and housing; and confidence in a more than adequate burial, and more than sufficient companionship in times of sickness or captivity.

Greed could therefore be described as: a compulsion to have more than adequate food, drink, clothing and housing, excessive companionship in times of sickness or captivity, and a sumptuous burial. (4)

The loose term here is ‘adequate’, with the burning question being: does what is adequate change over time? Most obviously, we would consider it criminal to deny someone antibiotics if they needed them – but antibiotics have only been around in the modern sense for 150 years. Visiting the sick has grown into caring for the sick over time, as the helplessness of the visitor has been replaced by modern medicine.

As much as it pains me to say it (it’s a lot less tidy for the argument, but truth is truth) yes, what constitutes ‘adequate’ does change over time as it becomes possible (5) to keep people healthy and alive by giving them newly invented comforts. On a practical level, virtually all the benefits of technology to virtually everybody all the time are stupid-simple: clean water, good sanitation, mitigation of heat and cold (i.e., a snug dwelling with heating and cooling as needed), along with antibiotics and vaccines.  Only in comparatively rare situations do things like MRIs and open-heart surgery materially improve anyone’s life. If you’re that guy who needs it, sure, it’s a big deal. But most people never do, and, even when they do, as likely as not the outcome isn’t many more healthy years of life. On a population-wide basis, those more high-tech improvements have only marginal effects on quality of life.

Back to the point: adequate in a rich country like ours means something like: good, nutritious food and clean water, enough clothing to dress according to the weather, a snug (6)  place to live with hot and cold running water (helps with that whole cleanliness thing), the availability of basic medicine, freedom from captivity and confidence your body will be properly disposed of upon death.

Greed would be a compulsion or obsession with wanting more than that. Wanting to destroy people for having more than that would be envy. Politics that fan envy and therefore animosity between people who might otherwise live in peace is demagoguery.  Hell’s millstone factory is on triple shifts.

Those of us who have direct person relationships with people who, for example, live in Section 8 housing, get their healthcare for free from County General and use food stamps recognize a different sort of poverty than any that might be addressed via material goods. There seem to be few sane adults in this country that don’t have ready access to all the items in that list above – food stamps can be used to get nutritious food, Section 8 housing tends to have hot and cold running water, the St. Vincent DePaul Society, among others, will outfit you with appropriate clothing if you ask them, and so on. Those are not the things that are missing, for the most part, in this country. The crushing poverty in this country is a poverty of family, companionship and community, which are the places in which true humanity flowers and freedom worthy of the name can  be exercised. Without them, we become slaves, thralls of we know not what, fighting against a foe we do not understand. But alas! There are no federal programs for love.

For my part, I have another 8 or 10 years over which my physical wealth (such as it is – I’m no Bernie!) supports and provides security for 5 other people – my wife and 4 living children. So I must hold on to it and add to it if I can, to fulfill my duties. After that, most of what remains will be designated as an inheritance, to give a leg up to my kids as they assume responsibility for the people in their lives. Some will be given away. I plan, hope and pray not to die wealthy.

Sun came out. Time to sling mud and rake up debris.

  1. Quite possibly because the people throwing these terms around lack the intellectual chops to figure it out. This is the more generous thing to suppose, as the alternatives – willful abuse of the language to achieve ends and utter stupidity – are even less flattering.
  2. Because we wanted and got (5 kids) a fairly large family, so I hung up all the artsy things I used to do and focused on making money – in order to fulfill my obligations to the ones I love. I suspect that some part of the judgement I’m under might reflect the painful reality of many Bernie supporters, wherein the people under natural obligation – mothers and especially fathers – failed their duties. Therefore, the want to have the state assume those obligations, and I and people like me are merely painful reminders of their own misery. Maybe.
  3. These are the old school acts. Harbor the harborless seems to encompass more than just housing the homeless – it would seem to require taking in refugees. Ransom captives is considered to be anachronistic – except for the thousands, perhaps millions still held by Islamic slavers/terrorists to this day. So we go with visit prisoners, which is a very good thing, and a subset of ransoming captives after a fashion.
  4. Thus, Plato breaks into the discussion as he always does. In the Republic, as you may recall, Socrates at first describes the virtuous state as one in which everyone is contented with having enough and shamed by having any more than that. Such a state would be almost impossible to conquer, because 1) there’s no money in it – all the people have is just enough, no valuable luxury items to sack – and, 2) being jealous of their freedom more than their lives, they would fight fearlessly. So, Socrates concludes, those greedy states would likely leave them alone. Only after his interlocutors insist that the virtuous state must include plenty of luxury does Socrates mock them by creating an elaborate idealized Sparta as a perfect state – this, while Spartans occupied the very Athens outside the walls of which the discussion in the Republic is taking place. That Plato, what a joker!
  5. Or impossible – don’t fall for the idea that history moves civilization only in one direction.
  6. I keep thinking ‘snug’ because the prime benefit people got from the little houses we built them in La Morita was that it kept out the dust – doors and windows that closed snug made the interior a refuge from the dust and dirt outside. And, if you did get a heater or air conditioner, if would make things more comfortable house wide, instead of just pumping heat or cold air into the wild.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “Wealth and Greed”

  1. “The crushing poverty in this country is a poverty of family, companionship and community, which are the places in which true humanity flowers and freedom worthy of the name can be exercised.”

    What a great analysis.

      1. Maybe so, but you’re also a product of your time and place. It no longer comes naturally to us to be neighborly in the old-fashioned, small-town sense. We don’t expect it of our neighbors and they don’t expect it of us. That’s not my fault or yours. Quite possibly most of the neighbors you don’t know, don’t want to know you either. : )

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