If I could banish one evil from humanity, it would be greed. Others may decry war, AIDS, or child abuse, but I believe greed is a far worse moral cancer.
The other deadly sins have their uses. Lust ensures our survival. Pride inspires accomplishments. If you don’t get angry at injustice, you have no soul. We build cherished holiday traditions around gluttony. Without sloth, we’d never rest. Envy may be a waste of time, but for sheer human carnage, it’s got nothing on Bernie Madoff, mob protection rackets, and dictators who equip armies and furnish palaces while their people starve.
I learned all about greed as a scholarship student at a New England prep school – an enemy outpost in the ongoing class war that has characterized the upper East Coast since the 1800s. My parents were so grateful for what they believed would be my ticket out of the ranks of the working poor. I was supposed to leverage my diploma into a college scholarship, forge a brilliant career, and achieve great things that everyone connected to my success could brag about.
We didn’t realize at first, but my school claimed a number of Mafia princesses, children of corrupt politicians, and pampered offspring of business tycoons whose paths to riches had been paved with bribes. In a few short months, I gained a horrifying understanding of the local professional class. I knew whose father had beaten the racketeering charge; which real estate development was proceeding because of a suspicious change in city zoning laws; and who had to attend public school because of indictments in the family. Because I wasn’t the daughter of anyone important, everyone talked around me as if I were deaf. I began to identify with the maids in drawing-room dramas who knew all sorts of awful secrets but had to remain silent. Stealing was rampant. These wealthy children never had enough of anything – enough money, enough academic success, or enough love.
Parents’ Night 1986 was especially illuminating. In the bathroom, I listened as one student’s mother gleefully told her friend about her husband’s plot to destroy a competing business. From inside the stall, I silently prayed for the nameless entrepreneur, who was also facing his wife’s alcoholism. These were the educated professionals I was supposed to aspire to join. Their collective religion was greed without constraints. They were successful and rich, and they disgusted me.
I graduated with no ambition whatsoever. I wanted no part of any career that included those reprehensible people. Now, twenty years later, I wonder how much human potential is wasted when greed becomes a celebrated national value. My social “betters” taught by example that a conscience is a liability, that fortunes are made through theft, and that no accomplishment matters unless it produces vast wealth – which someone will try to steal. For every child who rejects that insane philosophy, another embraces it. The Enron tragedy has deep cultural roots.