We’re Greedy, and We’re Proud of It
On ostentatiousness, humility, and those who flash their cash
“The beauty of me is that I’m very rich.”
So says none other than the current president of the United States, Donald Trump, as the world cringes. Bragging about money is the very definition of churlishness in many cultures. In Europe, mentioning how much you earn, how much you have, or what you can afford is the height of vulgarity and the quickest way to alienate everyone.
Unless it’s in the context of social issues and national budgets, Europeans don’t openly discuss money or gloat about it. Europeans are taught from a young age not to be ostentatious lest those of lesser means should feel left behind or inferior.
This is because we live in social democracies that guarantee a modicum of dignity to all; that we have a duty of care toward one another is self-evident, both on a domestic and EU-wide level in all 28 member states. While we haven’t eradicated poverty or homelessness yet, health care and education are within everyone’s reach. Sometimes it’s free, sometimes for modest fees, and there’s always financial help available.
While we Europeans are just as proud of our achievements as every other human in the world, we don’t tend to describe them in monetary terms.
Not so in America, where human worth is measured in dollars, and greed is not just normalized but encouraged.
As an EU immigrant to the United States, I can’t help but balk at America’s obsession with money.
While it’d be disingenuous to pretend money doesn’t matter — we all need it to live — those who crow constantly about it fox me.
Then again, when I was studying civics in preparation for naturalization, it was drilled into me the economic system of the US was capitalism. One of the many things I had to memorize was the exact date of Tax Day. Some of the questions designed to test English proficiency had to do with paying.
The steep costs of immigration and subsequent naturalization should have given me a clue about the predominant role money played in the American psyche, but I refused to see greed as a state-sponsored pursuit. Instead, I took it to be the sole preserve of those with outsize egos and delusions of grandeur who believe money granted them some kind of extra humanness. Rare though they are in Europe, they exist too.
Materialism, I reasoned, was how the loveless compensated for the absence of deep, meaningful bonds in their lives. When your life is empty of people, you fill it with things to feel grounded and palliate for the absence of human warmth.
Materialism is how hoarders create a safe space and a sense of belonging, always accumulating more and more things. Clutter is a comfort zone of sorts, sometimes with disastrous consequences as it becomes a health hazard.
And yet, more is never enough in America. The more money people get, the more they want, regardless of how much they need to meet their needs.
But instead of being shunned, grabbiness has been elevated to a virtue, especially online where paycheck porn has become a trend.
Can flashing your cash earn you friends?
Contrary to what I thought, apparently not. Not even in the US.
According to what researchers call the status signals paradox, we humans don’t like being overshadowed by our peers. Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, it would appear we instinctively seek equality. As a result, showing off our wealth with status symbols can put off those whose validation we seek.
But there seems to be one curious and notable exception: Online content writers boasting about how much they make. In a strange twist, doing so is seen as inspirational by many.
This, however, is only half of the story. The mirage of money is so blinding that many naive readers — often writers themselves — don’t realize they’re being played for clicks. Because no one wants to write for free, pieces tapping into a universal desire for compensation and positing anyone can achieve the same level of success if only they pound the keyboard hard enough are hugely lucrative.
What those misleading pieces all have in common is that they fail to provide a reality check.
When even well-reviewed novelists with a huge social media following like Emily Gould struggle to make ends meet and many freelance journalists have other jobs, something is clearly amiss.
If pros with years of training and experience can’t earn a living writing quality copy, how can anyone believe that flooding the internet with our every brain fart does a writing career make?
Money, apparently, is the only measure of success worth focusing on. Neither our contribution to the common good nor the credibility that comes with it matters anymore.
This is why those who get ahead brag about how much they make to those who are left behind. When your self-esteem is tied to your bank balance, the admiration, envy, and jealousy of others is catnip and a form of power.
Greed is no longer a vice but a virtue worthy of admiration, praise, and plaudits.
Until the culture we live in stops equating dignity with a dollar figure, this will never change.