What Makes us Greedy?
On going from lack to abundance yet remaining fearful of destitution
We all need money to live.
Money is a bartering tool we can exchange against other tools, such as shelter, food, health care, and education but it has no personality.
And yet, many of us obsess about it; no matter how much we have, we’re never satisfied, always want more, and are terrified of being destitute. This attitude isn’t uncommon in countries with insufficient social safety nets like the United States.
Because the US runs on capitalism, access to health care and education are commodities rather than basic human rights. As a result, human dignity isn’t guaranteed; instead, it is a dollar figure. This is why many Americans peg their self-worth to their pay check, possessions, and capital.
Thus, it isn’t unreasonable to posit greed is deeply ingrained in the American mindset and hailed by many as a virtue.
Seeking to amass as much money as possible is both normalized and perceived as praise-worthy, as there is no shame in openly declaring as much. Conversely, bragging about how much one earns, one has, or one wants is the ultimate social faux pas in Europe where we have a solid welfare system. Both at domestic and at union level, the EU is all about not leaving anyone behind.
Much like the US, the EU however remains a political experiment that is still finding its feet; although far from perfect, it does safeguard human dignity.
This isn’t the case in the US where income inequality is greater than in the EU and many people are de facto disenfranchised by institutions.
Since the election of Donald Trump, even an administration that is duty-bound to serve all Americans has taken to demonizing many. What’s more, it keeps glorifying greed.
When POTUS himself is leveraging his presidency for profit, what hope is there for America’s moral compass?
We Europeans have a humorous saying for when we can’t afford something.
“Do you take me for an American?”
The image of America as the post-war El Dorado of the 1950s lives on in our shared consciousness; the US is still seen as a place where everything is better. And inevitably bigger. Many Europeans still believe all Americans enjoy a higher standard of living than them, are all middle-class, and all live in McMansions.
That US food is often of poorer quality and also contains myriad questionable ingredients banned by the EU isn’t a well-known fact. Nor are all Europeans familiar with the eye-watering costs of a US college education and of health care.
It’s not that Europeans aren’t well informed, it’s simply that we cannot relate because we have no common frames of reference and few shared values.
When I write about how having a duty of care toward one another is self-evident in France, it alienates many who have only ever known individualism.
But Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité are values the French Republic has been striving to live up to since 1789 and it’s on every public building. Those include all state schools from kindergarten right up to universities, which means that the motto does stick.
And yet, I did choose to become an American in 2016 therefore whatever is going on in the US is my problem and also my responsibility to help change.
With this in mind, pushing back against greed seems like a worthy albeit exhausting pursuit. In a culture where the quickest way to get paid is to write about money on the internet, it seems almost pointless. Those who get it shake their head in disbelief while those who don’t become aggressive in an attempt to justify their grabby ways.
Could they be self-conscious about embodying a human trait that isn’t flattering yet has become a compulsion?
Where does greed even come from?
We need to look at how America has commodified everything and at how society erases those of lesser means. One the most shocking examples of this is the city of Seattle where I lived for five years before my household was priced out.
Seattle has become one of the most expensive cities in the US, a tech hub now competing with San Francisco. Many of those who work a non-tech job no longer stand a chance of finding affordable accommodation. As a result, the homeless population has exploded and little is being done by the city to remedy the problem even though it could easily afford it.
Some of those who live in tents or in their cars are even employed but they still cannot afford rent.
There are shoeless people sleeping rough on the sidewalks and no one bats an eyelid; your average Seattleite just walks past. Even those who try and survive by selling Real Change, a community paper designed to lift people out of poverty are often invisible.
Or perceived as an annoyance rather than a fellow human in need.
Once a year, the Seattle Center becomes a free dental clinic in line with what happens in Virginia. Food banks also do a brisk trade as many Seattleites frequently go hungry. My household has never used them because we although we never had much we still had more than many. But keeping a roof over our heads, utilities paid, and food in the pantry was always touch and go in the 6 years I lived in the US.
This is because I got sick and was incapacitated for 5 years without the means to access health care despite having insurance.
When you live with a scarcity mindset for a long time, becoming a greed evangelist begins to make some sense.
Because you’re never not scared of being poor again, your mind is constantly thinking about your bottom line.
Does this mean we should encourage and support money bragging or is there another way?
Letting fear rule our life prevents us from enjoying the fruit of our labor and the success our efforts have rewarded us with. It means we are quite unable of embracing the mindfulness needed to live in the moment. Instead, we cannot help projecting ourselves into a catastrophic future.
On a mental level, we’re forever stuck in a fight or flight mindset where we must compete with others for survival. We can’t relax, we’re anxious, and this can lead to paranoia, convinced everyone is out to get us. Not only is this self-destructive but it can end up in self-sabotage as we seek to make bank by any means necessary without second thoughts about ethics.
But as individualism shows us every single day, most people are too busy with themselves to care about anyone else.
Self-compassion and ensuring we take care of our health, get adequate rest, and feed our body and mind with quality nourishment rather than junk food and mindless TV can help.
Greed is a compulsion and an urge but we don’t have to give in to it otherwise we risk alienating others. Research has shown that money bragging works as a social repellent, even in America.
Why not focus instead on everything money can’t buy, like family, community, curiosity, creativity, and love?
Once you’ve been forced to survive on very little, you become aware that you don’t need all that much more to live a healthy, fulfilled, and productive life.
Everything beyond that isn’t worth stressing ourselves about and missing out on today when tomorrow is never guaranteed.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.