Greed Pt. 1: The Inequality Snapshot

When I feel the weight of the world, and try to focus on the one thing that brings about the most injustice in the world, it is greed.  What I want to say about extends beyond the confines of one post so I’d first like to look at the type of inequality we face in today’s world and then I want to explore how systems and cheating work, and then have a discussion about the morality of greed.

I will start with sharing with you how I define greed, which I don’t think varies too much from anyone else’s definition, and that is the hoarding of resources.  I am however going to focus on money which is most ubiquitous resource out there.  Of course it is true to say that money isn’t truly a resource in itself, because as Douglas Adams says, “Money is a completely fictitious entity, but it’s very powerful in our world; we each have wallets, which have got notes in them, but what can those notes do? You can’t breed them, you can’t stir fry them, you can’t live in them…”  However, it is a fiction that we’ve all agreed to believe in to give value to, and with money we can acquire the resources we need to live.  Now some of you will say that resources aren’t the most important thing in life, but I think we can agree that if you don’t have any food, having a meaningful job doesn’t do you much good.

Image result for hunter-gatherer shareAs someone who is very into evolutionary psychology, as I do with many things I like to start with our natural habitat, which is a group of a few hundred or so hunter-gatherers.  This is our beginning as humans and is very much how our brains are wired in terms of survival.  Power structures certainly exist, but the disparity is small.  People don’t really have property.  Everything in the tribe belongs to the tribe.  Some people are better at some things than others.  Some people maybe do more physically demanding activities and work harder, some may have less physically strenuous jobs.  Everyone knows each other, grows up with each other. If there is not enough food, the entire tribe is deprived.  If there is an abundance of food everybody prospers.  This is far from where we are now.

Let’s just take a look at some basic facts about the disparity here in the U.S.  The top 1% of earners in the U.S. according to data from 2015 is $1.4 million per year.  The average income for the bottom 90% is 34K.  The ratio between those two populations in income is 30:1.  Think about that for a second.  Imagine a tribe in which there were a 1000 people and 900 of those people had 1 piece of fruit for the day, while 10 of those people had 30 pieces of fruit per day.  There are about 90 other people averaging somewhere between 10 and 15 pieces of fruit.  Would such a system be stable for long?  Of course it would not.

First you may say, well you’ve just arbitrary given each person one piece of fruit, but what really matters is do all the people have enough to survive?  If so, then the disparity doesn’t matter all that much.  I’m going talk more about this later in future posts about why the bare minimum isn’t sufficient, but for now let’s say though that I changed it so that everybody had enough fruit to live each day.  So let’s give everybody their minimum calories for the day at 10 pieces of fruit.  Keeping the same ratio, the top 10 people in the tribe therefore have 300 pieces of fruit, most just rotting away and going unused.  Those people are still experiencing a lot of stress, because what happens when there is a low rainfall year and the amount of fruit goes down but the ratio stays the same?  In a hunter-gatherer tribe, can you honestly see those 10 people still withholding fruit from others?  Of course not.  Why?  Because everybody knows each other.  They grew up together, they care for each other and they would not let each other starve.  They would not blame those with little fruit for not working hard enough to gather fruit.  And if someone wasn’t pulling their weight they would talk to them and find out why they aren’t helping as they could and support them to do better.  Most people would not slack in their duties for the same reason that someone would not horde that much resources from other members of their tribe.  This is who we are.  We have empathy, we share, we help each other.

Image result for greed
Such a world is not the one we are living in however.  This disparity of course gets much worse if focus our attention on the extremes.  There are 300,000 people in the U.S. alone who average $6.7 million per year, and there are 1.56 million homeless people.  Just as a little math exercise, if you wanted to argue that each homeless person could live modestly and feed themselves for about 30 K a year.  If we took that money from the total wealth of the top 1%, they would still earn an average of 6.5 million a year.  I know, sounds like they’d be roughing it.  Now of course there are lots of reasons why homelessness happens, but my point again here is to look at the disparity, to look at the level of injustice that such greed allows.

Turning our gaze worldwide, in 2012 it was determined that the ultra-rich have 21 trillion dollars just sitting in off-shore accounts.  This Atlantic article also says it could be much higher at 32 trillion.  And since this was 6 years ago, it is certainly much higher.  This is money that these ultra-rich don’t even need for their day to day life.   Just to put that number in perspective, based on current rice consumption in China, this would continue feeding China rice for 329 years.  A population less than the size of China, 816 million, do not have enough food on a daily basis to live a healthy and active life.  The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that it would take US $3.2 billion a year to feed the 66 million hungry school aged children in the world.  This about 0.01 % of  the 21 trillion that sits in off-shore accounts.

So this is where we are at.  Now I am not saying that solving world hunger is as easy as just redistributing wealth, but I am saying that it’s a problem that we have several orders of magnitude times the resources to solve.  Next I’m going to look at how cheating occurs in systems, and how dehumanizing the poor, helps maintain the level of inequality and greed we see in the world.

Further Reading

Interesting article about sharing and cooperation in hunter-gatherer tribes.

And another

Psychology of greed

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33 thoughts on “Greed Pt. 1: The Inequality Snapshot

  1. “Money is a completely fictitious entity, but it’s very powerful in our world” This sounds eerily familiar to the second most powerful fiction in the world.
    I am still struggling with placing value in money. After a few years in the Panama jungle, then returning to society, money is hard to acclimate to. It feels fake, and is an attribute to modern humanity that one must acclimate to. It isn’t our natural state. Romanstyle colonial capitalist hoax designed to enslave us in a system we hate, but can’t seem to live without and are forced to participate. While the far-right claims it as their natural right, it is far from natural from the outside looking in. Excellent topic Swarn. Thanks for the discussion. I don’t think most people realize what a crock we’ve been sold. For every minimalist that bucks the system, another hundred sign in to the American dream/nightmare.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree with you Jim…there are times when the pursuit of money does feel like some sort of never-ending and cruel game, placed into society just to give us something to do. I’m not quite that cynical all the time, as of course if we just think of money as a resource, then it is true we’ve always been gathering and hunting resources. I think it’s the way money is sort of separated out of nature or lacks substance that makes one feel that life is often a hollow pursuit.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I have. I definitely think that hoarding of money is a real problem. Because of the glamour that comes with money (as opposed to a house full of items purchased from garage sales) such people are revered instead of sick people who need help.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. This is not my forte, but there is an element of continued accolade or pride associated with billionaire charities. While I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth too hard, spoon fed regional disbursement of funds, after the extensive application process (bidding) and proposals they dish out bandaids, often causing more long term trouble than they’re worth, while receiving ongoing pats on the back.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Yeah, I mean corporations often do good things as well, but is that not outweighed by the harm from the greed embedded in the corporate structure. I too sort of take the “better than nothing” attitude, but you’re absolutely right that there a number of ineffective charities and those that must line up to the rich for the handouts don’t always win them over on the necessity of their charity just how well they can impress the donor.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed, I do think the root is originally in fear, but I do think that for people with unending wealth I don’t suspect they spend a lot of time feeling fear anymore. I think their minds become more that of an addict. Not that fear might not still be there, but I think there is a lot about their life that they become addicted to.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Indeed, as I mentioned below in my response to Jim, the hoarding of money is as much as mental illness as people who can’t stop buying junk from yard sales and filling their house with it, unable to throw anything away.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Great post, Swarn. I look forward to your next segments. I think a really interesting question is whether or not the fundamental parameters of our psychology have changed from what is described in those articles you shared about earlier hunter-gatherer communities. Do individual psychological orientations that worked will in the context of hunter-gatherer communities backfire when channeled through the larger civilizations that came into being, and why so? Or did human psychology fundamentally change and give rise to the systems that now fail us? Was greed present in those earlier humans, but naturally proscribed by the survival limitations of the tribes in which people lived, and the fact that there simply was no means of surviving “on one’s own”, and nothing better to be had by placing one’s own interests first? I’m sure some researchers have attempted to answer all these sorts of questions already, but I’m not familiar with who they are or what they may have found. In any event, our current situation is certainly a complicated one.

    One question that came up for me in reading this was whether or not the top wage earners in the US were the same people year over year, and over long stretches of time. I don’t really know the answer to that, but found this link, which suggests it is not a fixed group. I suspect that if we shifted the conversation from earning per year to residual wealth, it may be more fixed but again I’m not certain. The one thing that strikes me is that we should be careful when having this conversation to assert that rich people are fundamentally different from those who are not, or from you and I. It is easy to leap to such a conclusion, which is reflected in your sentence, “…sounds like they’d be roughing it.” They are certainly different in the contents of their bank accounts, but it is not clear to me that we can equate contents of bank accounts with contents of character.

    It sounds as though your follow-up posts sound like they will explore these ideas, so I look forward to them.

    Michael

    Liked by 3 people

    1. As always Michael thank you for your insights and comments. I tend to think that it is mismatch of our evolutionary wiring and how civilization has changed the typical environment we are used to. In large populations there are simply less consequences for those who acquire massive wealth because they can own entire armies, be supported in the hierarchy by other slightly less rich people, that are still better off than the poor and destitute. Certainly revolutions have and will happen, and there is likely a threshold amount of disparity that led to violence once broken, but I am sure there is a great variation across populations that are largely functions of how completely you’ve convinced the people that their oppression is justified, and how much fear you’ve instilled.

      The article you linked was interesting, and I am sure that mobility is relatively high for the top 20%, but this does drop down to 12% for Americans reaching the top 1% for at least 1 year. And only 0.6% are in that category for 10 years straight. So there isn’t quite as much fluidity there where I’ve focused my discussion. And to be fair the top 1% is still only at about $1.5 million a year, which, not to say that I wouldn’t like that income, I’m smart enough to recognize that this really isn’t all that much in comparison the ultra rich in the top 0.1% and the type to have loads of money sitting in off-shore accounts.

      And I was being a bit derogatory there when I said “roughing it” I suppose, but I guess it’s hard for me to have a lot of sympathy for the monetary loss. If about 300,000 Americans could end homelessness by taking a less than 5% reduction in their yearly income, this doesn’t make me feel too bad by the oft-cited cry from conservatives about “class warfare”. That being said, I don’t think rich people are different from you and I, at least at the start, but I would argue that the longer they spend in a high degree of wealth, this does change their mindset quite a bit. In my next post I talk about “affluenza”, I do think, for all intents in purposes it’s a real phenomena. Living a life in which no decision you make really has any consequences because you can always buy your way out of it changes how you think. I also do think that greed is like hoarding money and that it is a mental illness, and so this does make them different from you and I, but I don’t doubt that we are likely corruptible by the same forces.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Hi Swarn,

        Thanks for the additional thoughts. I tend to think I agree with your thoughts about our evolutionary history vs present society, I just haven’t thought about it enough to know what I think. And I definitely agree that greed is a fundamental problem. If we disagree at all I think it is the extent to which we assert the top earners display qualities or characteristics fundamentally different from people in general. I like what you said about there being a common starting point, and then effects that accrue from living in a certain vantage position. It strikes me that if we make this too much about “those people” and less about the structures through which people flow, we could lose touch with the fact that all of us possess this greediness. This could result on a focus on individuals as opposed to the system that cultivates such conditions, which is why I’m interested in your future posts!

        Michael

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Thanks Michael. I am not sure that I present much solutions to the problem, but I am conscious of the structures that allow such conditions persist. My next post especially talks about this, and not to give too much away, but the main problem is that it is the greedy who prop up the structures. It becomes hard to separate the individuals from the system, since without them the system wouldn’t be as stacked in their favor as it is. It’s hard to imagine anybody being able to dismantle the structures without being bought or suppressed up against an unfathomable stack of money.

          Liked by 2 people

    2. Hello Swarn, Michael and other commenters,
      I can’t agree with you more, having read the post and all of the comments! Thank you for taking the time to think and write about this excellent post.
      Apart from the several articles cited in this post and some of the comments, I would like to inform both of you that there is a really excellent article on Wikipedia about the various polarizations in the USA as a result of income inequality:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Income_inequality_in_the_United_States
      According to Wikipedia:

      Plutocracy (Greek: πλοῦτος, ploutos, ‘wealth’ + κράτος, kratos, ‘rule’) or plutarchy, is a form of oligarchy and defines a society ruled or controlled by the small minority of the wealthiest citizens. The first known use of the term was in 1631. Unlike systems such as democracy, capitalism, socialism or anarchism, plutocracy is not rooted in an established political philosophy. The concept of plutocracy may be advocated by the wealthy classes of a society in an indirect or surreptitious fashion, though the term itself is almost always used in a pejorative sense.
      Usage
      The term plutocracy is generally used as a pejorative to describe or warn against an undesirable condition. Throughout history, political thinkers such as Winston Churchill, 19th-century French sociologist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, 19th-century Spanish monarchist Juan Donoso Cortés and today Noam Chomsky have condemned plutocrats for ignoring their social responsibilities, using their power to serve their own purposes and thereby increasing poverty and nurturing class conflict, corrupting societies with greed and hedonism.
      Examples
      Historic examples of plutocracies include the Roman Empire, some city-states in Ancient Greece, the civilization of Carthage, the Italian city-states/merchant republics of Venice, Florence and Genoa, and the pre-World War II Empire of Japan (the zaibatsu). According to Noam Chomsky and Jimmy Carter, the modern day United States resembles a plutocracy, though with democratic forms.

      More from Wikipedia:

      Effects on democracy and society
      Economists Jared Bernstein and Paul Krugman have attacked the concentration of income as variously “unsustainable” and “incompatible” with real democracy. American political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson quote a warning by Greek-Roman historian Plutarch: “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” Some academic researchers have written that the US political system risks drifting towards a form of oligarchy, through the influence of corporations, the wealthy, and other special interest groups.

      Also from Wikipedia:

      United States
      Further information: Income inequality in the United States § Effects on democracy and society
      See also: American upper class and Wealth inequality in the United States
      Some modern historians, politicians, and economists argue that the United States was effectively plutocratic for at least part of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era periods between the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the Great Depression. President Theodore Roosevelt became known as the “trust-buster” for his aggressive use of United States antitrust law, through which he managed to break up such major combinations as the largest railroad and Standard Oil, the largest oil company. According to historian David Burton, “When it came to domestic political concerns, TR’s Bete Noire was the plutocracy.” In his autobiographical account of taking on monopolistic corporations as president, TR recounted
      …we had come to the stage where for our people what was needed was a real democracy; and of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy.

      Speaking of those issues concerning greed, avarice, corruption, illegitimacy and so on, I have recently taken the time to create a new cartoon entitled “Best Quotation to Win an Exclusive, Loyal Contract to Make Pig Boss’ Company Great Again”. The said cartoon is published at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/the-quotation-fallacy/best-quotation-to-win-an-exclusive-loyal-contract-to-make-pig-boss-company-great-again/
      I do not know how to depict those issues in the cartoon more explicitly, or more subtly for that matter.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As I was reading your post, I couldn’t help but think of the multiple thousands of (desperate) people who are currently buying lottery tickets, “gambling” that the impossible odds will fall in their favor and they will win over a BILLION dollars.

    It is truly sad that we have “advanced” to the point where we think money will cure all our ailments.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s true to a certain extent, but I would say casinos are the bigger problem there. In theory lotteries aren’t a bad idea. It’s like a 50/50 drawing (sort of). Assuming the state government was using the money effectively, giving away part of the winnings to a person playing the lottery and using the rest of the money for education, or infrastructure rebuilding or whatever, makes the lottery kind of a good thing.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I appreciate your thoughts, Swarn, but I think you missed my point. I wasn’t commenting on the operational aspects of the lottery … I was pointing out how the average individual (who has no experience with wealth) is willing to (often) spend money they don’t have simply to gain unlimited wealth. This is the sickness that invades our society.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. I see what you’re saying. Any time one is spending beyond their means it is not a good trend. With gambling it does seem to primarily exploit the poor who will have less surplus income, knowing that they are more likely to spend what little extra they have to try and get rich quick. It may also be a function of being less educated and thus not having the means for easier social mobility. Either way it can certainly turn into an addiction and many people become obsessed with getting rich quickly (and effortlessly).

          Liked by 2 people

  4. What an insightful post. The illustrations you use really bring the point home. I recently had a conversation with a coworker that was continuing her education and trying to convince me to do the same. I told her I was content and she looked at me like I was an alien. In our society were programmed to want more and more, never being satisfied with what we have. Hebrews 13:5 says, “Let your way of life be free of the love of money, while you are content with the present things.” I live a low stress life by finding contentment and avoiding a greedy outlook.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much reading and for your kind comment. Although I’m not personally religious, I’ve learned a lot about many religions and it’s pretty clear that all of them don’t approve of greed. The Bible is full of passages that preach against the wanton acquisition of wealth. The problem, of course, isn’t rooted in any faith, but rather, I think, a turning away from things that have spiritual value. Kindness, charity, doing good works, friendship, love….there are so many things that make life fulfilling, and as you say stress free, that don’t involve money.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think an argument could be made that a lot of us could be more selfless than we actually are. There is an ethics philosopher, Will MacAskill who argues that not everybody needs to work in soup kitchens to do good, that if you are good at making money in a particular way there is nothing wrong with doing that, but it’s what you do with that wealth afterwards that is more important. I guess one could argue that without wealth to begin with your profession might not exist, or if it did it wouldn’t involve the big figures that it does, but nevertheless it does exist and if you make good money doing it because you enjoy it, and you’re good at it, that’s fine. We all have a choice with what we do with our money afterwards. But I don’t want to get into a judgement game, because I am certainly not perfect, I’m only saying that acquiring money through whatever profession you have chosen isn’t the issue, it’s how much you hoard that wealth or the level of luxury you enjoy given the amount of suffering that exists in the world. That’s where greed comes in, and many of us are probably a bit greedier than we should be.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Pingback: Greed Pt. 3: When is wealth immoral? – Cloak Unfurled

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