Saturday, December 03, 2011

Themes of Culture - Greed

There were (and perhaps continue to be) a variety of attempts to characterize cultures as being distinguished by patterns or themes of behavior. Ruth Benedict comes to mind when she spoke of “Apollonian” as compared with “Dionesian” cultures. She also discussed “Shame” as opposed to “Guilt” cultures. Roughly similar notions were suggested as “Cultural Configurations” by Clyde Klukhohn, and “Value Attitudes” by Talcott Parsons. Many others have toyed with similar ideas, some much better defined or delineated than others. Margaret Halsey, whom I mentioned previously spoke of “Dominant Institutions,” declaring that Business was such an institution in the United States. For my purposes here I have decided to use the following definition:

“The term “theme” is used here in a technical sense to denote a postulate or position, declared or implied, and usually controlling behavior or stimulating activity, which is tacitly approved or openly promoted in a society.” (Morris Edward Opler, 1941).

With such a definition you could, for example (and if you wished) say that “Order” is a defining theme of German culture. There has been such a claim, Ordnung ist das Erste Gebot,” (Order is the First Commandment {ofGod}), (Linda Langness, PhD dissertation, 1992). In any case, having lived through the past few decades, I have come to the conclusion that the dominant theme of 21st century America is almost beyond question: “Greed.” I do not say this happily or lightly about my own culture, but I believe it is true, and it pervades almost all aspects of our lives.

Consider, first of all, the current controversy over the 1% versus the 99%. This is a claim with a factual basis. We have many millionaires and even billionaires who, for the most part, resist having to pay increased taxes or even taxes at all, if possible. As they cannot possibly use all of their money their dogged insistence on having even more is difficult to classify if it is not greed. The same thing is true of many, perhaps most of our celebrities and professional athletes. Even when already having accumulated huge fortunes they cannot possibly exhaust they continue to make commercials, collect huge speaking fees, and etc., again difficult to describe as other than greed. It seems for those that have so much, there can never be enough.

As another example, consider the banking and especially the credit card industry. Most people with credit cards, almost everyone nowadays, pay over 9% and often as much as 30% for the privilege. By most standards this is usury, pure and simple. And not only do they charge exorbitant interest rates, they tack on other fees and use devious means to get more of your money, like offering to reduce your rate, but not telling you there is a fee for doing so, and so on. Banks, too, are absolutely shameless about ripping off their customers, using hidden fees, illegal foreclosures, and other techniques. They are never content to just earn a reasonable profit year after year for providing a service, they constantly create new ways to make more and more. I believe this is actually institutionalized greed. Insurance companies are just as bad and in fact get most of their money through unmitigated greed. If you have ever had to deal with an insurance company over an automobile accident, or even health insurance, you must be aware of what I mean. They will try most anything to get out of paying a claim, no matter how legitimate it is. No one is surprised when confronted with these problems, we have been so accustomed to them we now (however regretfully) consider them just “business as usual.”

Pharmaceutical companies are even more shameless, advertising drugs that are not always even approved, keeping drugs on the market as long as possible even when they know they are harmful, advertising shamelessly for ailments that sometimes are created out of thin air. They also typically overcharge for their products here in the U.S., the same products they sell elsewhere for less. As this is protected by the U.S. Congress one can only conclude it is “tacitly approved or openly promoted,” just as is all of the above.

Even our ordinary day to day lives are permeated by this theme of greed. We live in a consumer society where we actually have sayings like “shop until you drop,” “he who has the most toys wins,” “keeping up with the Jones’s,” and so forth. A few years ago a man won a huge lottery, many millions of dollars, when asked what he would do with his money, he replied his ambition was to become a billionaire! In fact our entire system, predicated as it is upon competition, is a constant attempt to get more for yourself, a more lucrative contract, another raise, the highest salary yet paid for something, and so on. Professional athletes are in some ways the worst offenders. They argued they deserved more money because their playing careers lasted only a short time, but now they make money so far in excess of what they need to live comfortably for the remainder of their lives, this is an argument that makes no sense at all. They, like most everyone else, want to be paid more than anyone else, apparently just for the sake of it, the prestige and recognition of being the highest paid. It is true there are a few exceptions to the dominance of greed as a value, a few companies, for example, are employee owned and the workers share in the proceeds. In such companies you can be sure the CEO’s are not receiving 400 times the salaries of the other employees. But in companies where the CEO’s are receiving such outrageous rewards you are facing nothing less than greed gone wild. Similarly, when a single trader or manager on Wall Street is raking in millions, or even billions a year, you are seeing naked greed in its most obscene form.

Yes, we live in a capitalistic society. But “American Exceptionalism” is such that we are the only advanced, industrialized, Western-European capitalistic society where a virtually unregulated capitalism exists. Where other countries at least try to make provisions for the poor and the unemployed, we apparently would prefer them to starve or otherwise disappear. Greed has come to permeate our culture to the point where it is even more American than apple pie. If Margaret Halsey were alive I believe she would be horrified to see just where the “Business Ethic” has finally taken us. Greed is the very antithesis of a harmonious and decent society and culture. But greed in America is not only “good,” it is tacitly approved and openly promoted, its “The American Way.”

One of the weaknesses of our age is our apparent inability to distinguish our need from our greed.

Author Unknown

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