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HomemilastwordThe Last Word: Avarice

The Last Word: Avarice

In the original 1987 ‘Wall Street’ movie stock trader Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, uttered three words that reverberated around the world “Greed Is Good…”

The mantra was taken up by an avaricious Western society and, to many, it still applies.

The character of Gordon Gekko was based, in part, on stock trader Ivan Boesky who, in a famous speech at the University of California, Berkeley in 1986 said: “I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”

Following his indictment on charges of insider trading, Boesky became the poster boy for the industry’s greed. Indeed, Boesky had devoted his entire career to the acquisition of wealth. “What good is the moon,” he once asked, “if you can’t buy or sell it?”

How many of us share our wealth or expertise or time with those in less fortunate circumstances?

Then there was the king of avarice, Bernard Madoff, recently sentenced to 150 years behind bars for ripping at least USD$171 billion from investors in the grandest Ponzi scheme in the history of greed.

Following the record sentence, President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said: “The judge wanted to send a very strong signal to anybody that invests money on behalf of others of the amazing responsibility that they have to those investors and to… the country. My guess is that that message will be heard loud and clear going forward.”

But was the message loud – or clear – enough?

Even in the wake of the global financial crisis, governments around the world have failed to come up with pragmatic recommendations on how to rein in executive salaries. Millionaires still want to become multi-millionaires. Multi-millionaires, billionaires and billionaires are hording their wealth.

Even ‘John and Jan Q. Citizen’ are consumed with amassing material wealth. Australian ethicist Clive Hamilton, in his book Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough, claims society is addicted to overconsumption. He defines ‘affluenza’ as “the bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses.”

But at what cost?

How many of us share our wealth or expertise or time with those in less fortunate circumstances? Statistics from charities suggest the numbers are diminishing at an alarming rate.

Of course we all want to better our own circumstances and those of our family, but how many beds can we sleep in? How many cars can we drive? How many homes can we live in?

If we can afford the money, make the time or possess the expertise, we are obliged to offer some of these assets to others in the name of decency and humanity.

One of Louis B. Mayer’s colleagues once attempted to persuade the famous movie studio chief to leave some money to charity after his death. “You can’t take it with you when you go,” the colleague declared. “If I can’t take it with me,” Mayer retorted, “I won’t go!”

That’s the “greed is good” attitude to which far too many of us adhere.

At mivision, we prefer the words of Sir Francis Bacon who once said: “If money be not thy servant, it will be thy master. The covetous man cannot so properly be said to possess wealth, as that may be said to possess him.”