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Is There A Cure For Greed?

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We all agree that we live in a society, indeed a world culture, where a great many people are struggling just to pay their bills and meanwhile sinking deeper into debt, while a relatively small group have more than enough material wealth to last ten to a thousand lifetimes.

Inequality, not overall lack of material wealth, is the root cause of America's current middle-class emotional suffering - anxiety, stress, anger, despair ...

Bob Samuels explained this dilemma succinctly in his recent article on the 'student loan bubble': "Besides the top 15% of the American earners, most Americans have been forced to take on debt to pay for the essential things that no one can do without." Why? Because costs and also profits have been rising over-fast for the essentials (healthcare, housing, etc.) while wages have remained stagnant for thirty years.

We're all greedy: It does seem that certain moneyed sectors of our society are continuing to get fatter at the expense of everyone else. And it's all too easy to cry out 'unfair!' at the top 15% and to accuse them of rampant unchecked immoral greed - but I've been studying the human phenomenon of greed for 30 years, and as a psychologist I say we make a mistake when we accuse the lucky rich folk of being greedy, without realizing that greed is a universal human trait.

The naked psychological truth is that most people, given half a chance, will tend to behave in greedy ways. The problem with greed isn't that it infects the rich - the deeper problem is that greed reflects an ingrained human tendency to hoard during the good times, so we won't suffer or even starve if bad times come.

The biology of greed: Greed isn't the product of our forebrain's logical deductive cognitive-emotive process. The greed impulse originates in the primitive fear center, in the amygdale and related reptilian parts of the brain.

If we're going to curb greed in banking, investing, etc, we must first admit that we all possess the greed bug. Unless we shine the light of reason and higher awareness directly at this selfish reactionary pattern of the human mind, there's no hope of changing it - because significant change always starts from within.

What to do
: Perhaps we need a Presidential Commission On Greed - that examines the root psychological dynamic of greedy behavior, and how to change this behavior. America was founded on the notion that all its citizens can aspire to be filthy rich - but is this really our highest goal?

We usually perceive our country as the most generous culture on earth (which in many ways we are) and yet we allow our own economic system to be driven overmuch by greed. As a result, investment bubbles continue to swell and burst, and the average middle-class family continues to bear the brunt of the resulting hardship.

Calling Greed's bluff: The primitive fear center of the brain, when left to its own selfish devices, runs almost constantly in greed mode. We do have this reptilian dimension to our decision-making processes - we naturally fear running out of goods and starving to death - it's in our genes. But we also have the power to use reason and compassion to over-ride greed.

Psychologically, greed is an expression of fear - and fear ultimately means our fear of dying. Once we consciously accept that we're going to die someday anyway, we can begin to make choices that aren't based on fear and expressed as greed.

The next big investment bubble, as Bob Samuels pointed out, seems to be the student-loan bubble - and that will be highly unfair to the younger generation. It's time for all of us with 'more than enough' to become conscious compassionate capitalists who put America's future (education for all, a healthy stable economy, hopeful new generation) first - and call a stop to such socially-damaging investment habits.

Talk it up! Our government isn't going to miraculously pass a bill and reverse the debt/greed syndrome. Nor are the leaders of our banking institutions and capital pool. Nor are ministers and priests and pundits and morality coaches. It's us - all of us together - who're going to choose to start talking openly about the core cause of the inequality and suffering being generated by the American greed reflex.

From my understanding, throwing blame won't do any good - instead, let's start talking about greed not in accusatory terms, but in healing terms. Let's get over this together - so that America truly leads the world in economic generosity and fairness for all ... it's the best we can do for our children and our country.

I've said my piece - what do you think about this?

John Selby
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