When you think about it, money is actually a very good thing. Without it, the modern world literally couldn't function. Indeed, by providing a common means for exchanging economic value, money simplifies our lives to an almost unimaginable extent and should count as one of humanity's great inventions.
Money isn't the root of all evil. Greed is.
In its simplest terms, greed is the pursuit of economic value above and beyond other sorts of value. For example, social value or human value. Most of what's wrong in our economy today can be attributed to greed. The Great Recession is almost entirely the result of greed run amok. And, I should add, greed on the behalf of a shockingly small minority of society's members.
The banking system collapsed, taking the housing market down with it, largely because a few very greedy people put their own pursuit of economic value ahead of absolutely everything else, and did so with absolutely no regard for the damage to social and human value their actions would cause.
In its simplest terms, that's evil. I don't know what else to call it.
Greed is the ultimate selfish motive, so to the extent that it destroys social and human value, greed is the root of all evil. Conversely, letting go of greed can be the source of much good.
This past week, I've come across two very heartening examples of doing good by letting go of greed. Both are in the housing market.
First, as the New York Times
wrote about earlier this week, a non-profit organization has sprung up in Boston to help homeowners who have suffered foreclosure because their mortgages are underwater. It's called Boston Community Capital
, and its basis is not in greed but in recognizing the greater importance of social and human value.
What they do is to buy foreclosed homes from the bank, then sell them back to the original homeowners at their present
market value. Boston Community Capital recognizes that it's not good for anybody when a homeowner gets booted out of their home.
Obviously it's bad for the homeowner. It's also bad for the property, as unoccupied properties are subject to greater rates of vandalism and general degradation, which only lowers the property's value further. It's bad for the neighborhood, too, as a vacant property lowers property values for surrounding homes. If too many homes go vacant in a neighborhood, that can turn into a vicious circle of descending home values, pushing more mortgages underwater and resulting in even more foreclosures.
Basically, foreclosure sucks for all concerned. Foreclosure itself is a greed-based strategy: the bank repossesses a house in order to salvage whatever economic value they can out of it at present market prices, but with no regard to the collateral damage in social and human value terms.
So, Boston Community Capital buys those homes from the bank--when the bank has already resigned itself to taking pennies on the dollar for what their balance sheets say they are owed--and returning the homes to the original homeowners on terms they can actually afford. By preferring social value and human value over economic value, Boston Community Capital breaks that vicious circle. They are providing a mechanism for continuity in the ownership and occupancy of the house, which then supports that property's value but also the values of property in the whole neighborhood.
Ironically, placing social and human value above economic value has the net effect of also supporting economic value in a way that placing economic value above all else doesn't. Neat, huh?
The second heartening piece of news comes from, of all places, Bank of America. They seem to have taken a lesson from Boston Community Capital, as reported this morning
on Public Radio's Marketplace
program. Bank of America is announcing a plan to forgive homeowners some of the amount they owe on their mortgage when that mortgage is underwater. In effect, for those homeowners, Bank of America is going to pay down a hefty chunk of the principal on their loan.
Bank of America has recognized that the greedy strategy of demanding a homeowner to make good on a $400,000 mortgage on a house whose market value has fallen to $250,000 is stupid. The light has finally dawned on them that, in focusing exclusively on economic value, they'll only be destroying the very economic value they seek to hold on to. To their credit, Bank of America has they've realized it is better to write off the $150,000 difference so they homeowner can stay in the house and continue to make payments.
I take both of these things as a very good sign, and not just for the housing market.
In my view, nearly all the difficulty humanity faces in making progress on the problems that threaten us boils down to greed.
Why can't we make progress on global warming? Because of greed-based motives in industries that have for too long grabbed enormous amounts of economic value by hiding the true costs of the goods and services they provide in the form of CO2 emissions. Those CO2 emissions are now catching up with us--that hidden cost is coming due--but those industries won't let go of the greed. They can't find a way to put the human value of the billion or so human lives that may needlessly be lost due to global warming above the economic value they so greedily prize.
Why can't we make progress on meaningful health care reform? Why did "health care" reform get watered down to "health insurance" reform? And why did even getting that much take fourteen months of fighting tooth-and-nail, every day? Because the insurance company can't find a way to place human value, in terms of the lives that are lost due to insurance greed and quality of life that is sacrificed on that altar, over the economic value they so greedily prize.
Why can't we quickly and painlessly shift to a food production system that is sustainable, healthier, and organic? Because "big-Ag" is entrenched in a greed-based model that seeks to pump out the greatest number of marketable food calories with the smallest input of economic value (that is, at the lowest cost), regardless of the consequences in terms of social and human value.
All our problems boil down to greed. They always do. So I take heart in seeing two examples, nearly back-to-back, of the positive results that occur when people let go of greed and act accordingly.
In my view, the fate of humanity in the 21st century rests largely on whether we can, as a global culture, shift away from greed-based thinking and towards a model that values social and human value above economic value. If we can, then solving those serious, threatening problems will be simple.
The solutions are mostly quite obvious--you really want cheap, global health care for all? Just let go of the greed: Put _everybody_ in the same insurance pool and charge as small a premium as necessary to pay for the actual amount of services consumed. Simple. Universal health care, described in 24 words.
You want to stop global warming? Just let go of the greed. Energy companies ought to be putting their vast amounts of cash into crash research programs for sustainable energy development. It's good for the planet, may save a billion lives, and is the only way they themselves can survive in the long term. But they can't do it because in the short term it would "affect shareholder value" (code words for "wouldn't give us the return our greed demands.")
The solutions are simple, and to get them, all we have to do is give up the greed. Money is a very good thing, but some things really are more important.