Sunday, April 14, 2013

Greed Comes In All Sizes

greed (gr d) n. An excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves, especially with respect to material wealth.

I recently had a phone call from a parent of a guitar student, who was disputing the amount he had paid me compared to the number of lessons I had given his daughter.  She had decided to quit her lessons so this call came a couple of weeks after our last one.  It was late in the evening after a full day of teaching when the call came in, and I had just shut my computer down.  As we spoke I tried to reboot my computer and look at my records, but I was flustered and finally I said I would send him a cheque for the one lesson he believed I owed her.  

The following day, I went through my records and determined that I had, in fact, taught her for the exact number of lessons he had paid for.  So I carefully constructed a letter, complete with all of the dates of her lessons and the total he had paid me, so that he would see that I had not ripped him off.  We were only disputing one lesson, so in good faith, I sent the cheque along with the letter because I had promised I would and said so in the letter.  A month went by and he didn't cash the cheque, so I more or less forgot about it.  And then the other day when I checked my bank account, I saw that he had cashed it.  I would like to say that I was surprised, but in fact, I wasn't.  I should point out that this family was far from poor, and I was paid to teach the girl in her home, so I could see they were well off.

Why wasn't I surprised at his act?  I can count on one hand the number of times I've had issues with payments over my twenty-six years of teaching.  Most people are honest, as am I, and we always manage to work things out.  I have made mistakes in calculations, as others have, but in the end we find a way to agree.  But sometimes you meet people in various situations and immediately sense their disrespect, their sense of entitlement and/or self-importance.  Who knows where it comes from or why, but that is what I sensed in this man.  Over the months that I came to teach his daughter, when he paid me, he did so without looking me in the eye and with an air of contempt.

One big story in Canadian news this week was about the Royal Bank of Canada replacing their Canadian employees with foreign workers at a lower wage.  Apparently, their $7.5 billion in profits in 2012 wasn't enough and they needed to cut costs.

It's not only RBC, the other banks do this as well as many larger corporations.  And perhaps we should remind ourselves of the crash in the U.S. of 2008 because of corporate greed, for lack of a better phrase.  Five years later, the Occupy Movement has seemingly died out, but the greed continues unabated.  People on the right side of the political spectrum love to throw around the "less government, fewer regulations" argument, but look what happens when some companies and corporations are left unchecked.  It's disgusting.

So what makes that corporate executive at a highly profitable company decide that it's better to replace employees with others at lower wages?  What makes another relatively well-to-do person cash a cheque that they know is not really their money to have?

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed” - Mahatma Ghandi

In seven separate recent studies conducted on the UC Berkeley campus "researchers consistently found that upper-class participants were more likely to lie and cheat when gambling or negotiating; cut people off when driving, and endorse unethical behaviour in the workplace. The increased unethical tendencies of upper-class individuals are driven, in part, by their more favourable attitudes toward greed,” said Paul Piff.

Other studies I've read in past show that often, those with less money tend to be more generous. For instance, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2009 survey of "consumer expenditure found that the poorest fifth of America's households contributed an average of 4.3 percent of their incomes to charitable organizations in 2007. The richest fifth gave at less than half that rate, 2.1 percent."


It seems that the more money you have, the more likely you are to be unabashedly greedy.  Of course, this isn't true in every case, as was shown by Warren Buffet's declaration in an op-ed in the New York Times “I know well many of the mega-rich and, by and large, they are very decent people,  Most wouldn’t mind being told to pay more in taxes as well, particularly when so many of their fellow citizens are truly suffering.” I think that in many cases, this is true.  There are wealthy people out there who are also generous and philanthropic.

So the heads of the Royal Bank of Canada first tried to explain and then ultimately apologized for their actions, which was more about damage control than any real remorse, of course.  They were only sorry that they had been caught.  And had I decided to confront the fellow who cashed that cheque, he might also have felt embarrassed, or maybe even given me back the money.  My deepest feeling, however, was that I had done the right thing and that it was his decision whether or not to show his true colours, which he surely did.

I am happy, however, that the employees who were ditched by the RBC in favour of cheaper labour came out to the media.  Previously fired employees at other companies are now coming forward too, as are the replacement employees who are also being cheated and even threatened by their future employers.  

One little cheque didn't deplete my bank account;  hundreds of people losing their livelihood due to corporate greed is another story.   But both stories highlight something in our human nature that won't go away any time soon.  Greed is not good.



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