Everybody Else’s Biggest Problem, Pt. 12: Recap of Part One

Welcome to the twelfth installment of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s biggest problem […]

Mockingbird / 12.15.15

Welcome to the twelfth installment of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s biggest problem but your own. If you missed one or more of the previous installments, you can find them here. The next installment will be posted on Tuesday, January 5, 2016.

I guess it all started with the book reviews.

When Eat What You Kill debuted in 2014, just about every review referenced greed. This one is typical: “Ted Scofield’s debut novel is a tale of the greed, envy, and the dangers of giving in to the alluring temptress that is Wall Street.”

Interviewers asked about it. Book clubs wanted to talk about it. And I was forced to think about it.


To educate myself, I researched the “deadly sin,” and I discovered some fascinating data: Polls show just about all of us believe greed is a serious problem in our culture, but very few of us think it is our problem. Greed is the title of this series: everybody else’s biggest problem. We are quick to point the finger, particularly at our favorite societal and political boogeymen, but only very, very rarely at ourselves.

Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman sums it up with this observation: “Of course, none of us are greedy. It’s only the other fellow who’s greedy.”

But that’s not the full quote from Friedman. The celebrated intellectual’s preceding words, from a 1979 interview with Phil Donahue, are both fascinating and, for me, prophetic: “What is greed?” The Nobel Prize winner correctly summarizes the data, that none of us believe we are greedy, yet other people certainly are, but he also asks in the same breath, What is greed?, a question he does not answer.

When I sat down to write an essay on the topic, I asked the same question, and I couldn’t answer it. I assumed I knew the answer. Greed is, well, greed. I thought about humanity’s other frailties and vices, for example anger and addiction, and I realized that, as a culture, we agree on what they are and how they should be managed. After all, we have classes for anger management, and we have innumerable self-help and twelve-step programs for addiction. But what about … greed?

And so this quest began, for a collectively agreed upon and applicable definition of a common concept we all think we understand but I suggest we absolutely do not.


Now that the holiday season is in full swing and, a happy coincidence, we’ve reached the end of part one of this series, I’m taking this opportunity to recap what we’ve explored over the past six months. (And, frankly, who wants to ponder greed during the holidays? I’m reminded of a favorite quote from A Christmas Story. As he and his brother dive into a pile of gifts, Ralphie as narrator says, “We plunged into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.” So let us pause and give thanks for our ability to give and receive; greed will be lying in wait for us.)

When the question What is greed? is posed to individuals and groups of all ages and economic circumstances, the same nine concepts repeatedly emerge. We’ve discussed each of them in turn, and remarkably none of them bring us closer to a culturally workable definition of greed.


Abundance is the first articulated attribute of the greed mystery, when someone, other than us of course, has too much money (and the stuff that money can buy). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus himself warns “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” But how much is too much? Can you imagine even as few as ten Americans agreeing on when enough is enough? Trust me, it doesn’t happen. Too much is intensely personal.

Utility involves how we use our money, in essence, how much we share with others, and the premise is, if we give away a lot of our money, we aren’t greedy. But how much is “a lot”? Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg plans to donate a majority of his wealth to charitable causes, but what if he keeps a billion or so for himself? Or maybe a hundred million? Is he greedy? How much can Mark keep and not be greedy? Some of us argue 100%; some insist no more than 1%. Consensus on utility? Impossible.

Satisfaction. We are greedy if we are not satisfied with what we have. Here in the United States, where 99% of us have shelter, clothing, clean water and food, and I bet 99% of you reading this post have smart phones and access to HBO, can we possibly agree on when an individual should be satisfied with her income and possessions? Or are we condemned to forever compare ourselves to the Joneses, an infinite loop of wanting a little bit more, just one more bedroom, one new car, and then we will tell ourselves we’re satisfied?

Relativity. When I ask people What is greed? a common response is “It depends on where you live.” We tend to view greed as relative to the general living conditions of an area, whether it be a city or nation or continent. So, can we as Americans agree on to whom we should be compared? Studies show we perpetually compare ourselves to people slightly ahead of us in riches, never behind, so we always want more, because the other guy has more than we do.

Politics. Because we can always find the other guy who has more than we do, we can always pin the dreaded greed label on somebody other than ourselves, and our political ideology allows us to identify and vilify this omnipresent other guy. Politics allows us to abdicate our personal responsibility to care for those in need; it is a convenient scapegoat to sooth our consciences. I hear it all the time: “I’m not greedy; I vote for [fill in the blank].” But has “politics” solved our social welfare problems? Reams of data confirm what few of us want to admit: Whatever our ideology and regardless of how we vote, our side fails, and our default excuses, obstruction and gridlock, also fail to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. If we look to politics to define greed, we find only polarization and despair.

Necessity. “Wanting more than you need is a simple definition of greed,” we learned in Part 8 of the series, and our go-to reference books confirm it. But is it really that simple? Can we collectively agree on what an individual or family needs? And, pretending we can, in our individualistic society hell-bent on liberating our authentic selves, who are you to tell me what I need anyway?

Vocation. It’s right there in the review quoted at the start of this piece: Wall Street. If you labor on Main Street, perhaps you think we can define greed based on a person’s job. Can we? Are finance professionals inherently any different from union members or college students or you and me? No. Studies show the #1 reason people chose their line of work is money. Affluence is college students’ top life goal. Vocation does not define greed; if anything, greed defines vocation.

Earned. “You are greedy if you have money or things you did not earn.” Many people, typically inhabiting one end of the political spectrum, want to define greed by means of the lamented “welfare culture.” And, sure enough, economists agree a substantial percentage of those who receive benefits choose to do so: “When you can pocket 50 to 60 percent or more of your salary for doing absolutely nothing, many workers will prefer sitting on the couch to returning to work.” On the opposite end of the political spectrum, exasperated individuals ask, “Do hedge funders earn their millions? What about the CEOs of failing companies?” You and I probably relate to one viewpoint or the other. Neither define greed.

The Law of the Land. Just two weeks ago we examined our nation’s least common denominator, our legal system, and pondered the statement “It’s not greed if it’s legal.” Conceptually, 99% of us reject this opinion, despite its easily applied, objective logic. Greed transcends our civil and criminal laws; a law-abiding person can be greedy. But how do we behave on a day-to-day basis? Do we call out people for being greedy? Do we have self-help programs for greed? Are greed interventions all the rage in our income inequality-obsessed society? Like the preceding eight attributes of greed, the law of the land fails to define greed.

So where does this leave us? What’s next?

Starting in January, in the pensive hangover of our “unbridled avarice,” we’ll address what’s next, and it boils down to one word: Why? Why are we as a nation, as a culture, as a people, unable (or unwilling?) to define greed?

Until then … May your Christmas cornucopia not include a pink bunny suit. (But, hey, if it does, rest assured, it could be worse.)

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One response to “Everybody Else’s Biggest Problem, Pt. 12: Recap of Part One”

  1. Liza Smith says:

    Great summary of a fantastic series! I’m really looking forward to what’s coming next. I think we can’t or won’t define greed because we love money too much to attach a negative feeling to accumulating it. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to Mockingbird and Mr. Scofield!

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