Why Are Some Billionaires Still Greedy for More?

My line of thought on this started with a compelling analysis of the origin and maintenance of the Tea Party. Definitely worth reading here.

Connecting the economic and political dots proves how much the Tea Party is the brainchild of the ultra-billionaire Koch brothers. This so-called 'grass roots' movement is really made of artificial astroturf. It has been created by, and is meant to serve, the interests of some of the richest people on earth.

I have always wondered why the Koch brothers bother? Were I blessed with their tens of billions, I certainly wouldn't spend my very limited time on earth energetically devising ways to make myself even richer and the middle and poorer classes even poorer.

It is not as if the super rich are hurting. There has been a massive transfer of wealth in the U.S. during the past 40 years. Three economic and political forces have driven a growing and gaping inequality.

First, technology gains and globalization have greatly favored capital over labor. The stock market has exploded while wages have stagnated. And corporate CEO's who used to earn 25 times as much an average worker, now cash in grandly at over 200 times.

Second, the relative tax burdens for rich people and big corporations have been cut drastically, putting more of the burden on the middle class.

Third, public services are being pruned and privatized. The rich can afford and prefer to have private everything -- private health care, private schools, private security guards, private planes, private pension plans, and on and on. The Tea Party (i.e. Koch) agenda is to help them avoid responsibility for paying for public services needed by everyone else -- even though, in all other developed countries, these are deemed as absolutely essential, a matter of simple fairness, and a guarantor of social harmony.

The U.S. already has one of the most unequal wealth distributions in history. The top 1 percent of the population already owns almost half the wealth, while the bottom 80 percent owns only 7 percent. The Tea Party agenda reveals that the top 1 percent is still not satisfied and wants to increase even further its lion-size share.

Which brings us back to our original question. Why don't the Koch brothers (and their like-minded, super rich brethren) just kick back and enjoy what they already have, rather than energetically gaming Washington and state capitals to ensure they will have even more. How many billions are enough?

Apparently the sky is the limit. It is not hard to see why -- the evolutionary race has always been won by the greedy and greed is deeply engraved in our DNA. The relentless pursuit of supplies and offspring was a winning combination because supplies were usually scarce and offspring were the ticket to evolutionary success.

So greed goes back to the earliest life forms and has influenced their evolution into us. Greed is an important contributor to the human condition and affects most things we feel, do, and think. Greed has its uses, but carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. I experience this myself in acute form every single time I confront an open refrigerator.

All the world's religions have warned against the risks of greed:

"A greedy man brings trouble to his family, but he who hates bribes will live." -- Old Testament

"Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." -- Luke, New Testament

"There are three gates to self-destructive hell: lust, anger, and greed." -- Bhagavad Gita

"In his love for the world, the greedy is like the silkworm: the more it wraps in its cocoon, the less chance it has of escaping from it, until it dies of grief." -- Imam Muhammad al-Baqir

"Greed is an imperfection that defiles the mind." -- Gautama Buddha

Ancient Rome declined and fell partly because of greedy practices that created economic inequalities very much mirroring ours today. A sample from worried Roman commentators

"Poverty wants much; but avarice, everything." -- Publilius Syrus"

"The covetous man is always in want." -- Horace

"For greed all nature is too little." -- Seneca

My two favorite modern greed quotes are:

"There is a sufficiency in the world for man's need but not for man's greed." -- Mahatma Gandhi

"Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction." -- Erich Fromm

And here are some statements by the greedy that nicely reveal the nature of their greed. Wallis Simpson said 'you can't be too rich or too thin'. When multi-billionaire septuagenarian Carl Icahn was asked what motivated him to keep raiding corporations, he said that money was the only way to 'keep score'. When asked what he really wanted, Johnny Rocco in Key Largo says 'More'. And Gordon Gecco in Wall Street proudly proclaims that 'greed is good'.

Well, only up to a point. The evolution of species and the fate of human civilizations both reveal the same repetitive and depressing pattern. Species and civilizations typically die out just after they are puffed up by greed. The population grows beyond the carrying capacity of the environment -- and then it abruptly crashes.

And to mix my metaphors -- societies come apart at the seams when the slicing of a shrinking pie results in excessive inequalities that rend the social fabric.

The lessons are clear and tragic -- greed wins in the short run, but dooms us in the long.
Can rational thinking and fair-minded public policy possibly curb self-destructive greed?

Hard to predict. You would come to very different conclusions depending on how you choose your test cases. For example, the Koch brothers' political positions are diametrically opposed to the social safety net and relative economic equality established by of the Scandinavian countries.

But there is a small glimmer of hope across time in this cross-country comparison. After all, currently fair-minded Scandinavians are just 1,000 years removed from being greedy, marauding Vikings. Perhaps we will wise up before it is too late to save our country's social harmony and to preserve our planet's environment. Perhaps we won't.