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.
As 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.
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.