“What I remember saying is much more wonderful than what I actually said.”
Richard Feynman

What Do You Care What Other People Think?

A Greed Assumption: From Wall Street Bankers to Romanian Peasants

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I just finished watching the first two parts (and looking forward to the last two) of this excellent PBS research documentary Money, Power and Wall Street. Though it is a topic and theme I’ve heard/read about numerous times, it seems like the presentations are getting better and better. I recommend it.

As I was watching it the word “greed” stuck in my mind as a recurring theme. Though it is tempting and emotionally satisfying to point a finger at people that should be blamed for our problems I feel it is an injustice to everyone because it doesn’t delve into the heart of the problem. In my mind, one of the indicators that I am moving towards the core of a problem is that it makes the “us-and-them” lines more fuzzy and becomes more of a “we” story. In this case “greed” seems to do that.

Recently we launched here in Romania a project called Cutia Taranului or in English “Peasant Box”. We are trying to help peasants establish a direct-delivery service of fresh produce to a regular customer base of people in the city. The first family, neighbors and friends, made 50 such boxes available and the boxes were snapped up within a few days. They added 10 more boxes and those too were spoken for almost instantly (for the record: according to our estimates at ~20 boxes they would have reached their current level of revenues with a much higher profit margin so 60 boxes … ).

Then word began to spread and we have been approached by more peasants and more customers all over Romania who wish to establish a similar service. Naturally, the first family also spread the word to some of their family and neighbors and through them two more peasant families have showed an interest. One family is interested in offering 30 boxes and another family just 10 boxes. When that happened the first family asked us with a sense of urgency to increase their offering to 80 boxes. They were afraid that they would lose potential customers to the two new families (this in a city of almost 400,000 people and a waiting list of people waiting to sign up when more boxes become available). In other words they got greedy. The sudden taste of potential (not a single box has been shipped – boxes only start shipping at the beginning of June when produce becomes available) success brought out greed.

It was an enlightening experience for me to witness first hand how greed is born. It has popped up again since (with other peasants). We quenched it and it will probably continue to require our attention.

Yet further reflection leads me to believe that greed is still not a root cause. Greed is a product of a deeply ingrained flawed mentality … something along the lines of “there isn’t enough for everyone”, “that more is better” … a mentality that is rooted in and manifests fear. Wall Street Bankers have simply taken that mentality (present even in Romanian peasants) to an extreme. In doing so they have done us a service. They have shown us that that mentality is wrong – it simply doesn’t work. It is a huge socio- economic platypus:

“The world comes to us in an endless stream of puzzle pieces that we would like to think all fit together somehow, but that in fact never do. There are always some pieces like platypi that don’t fit … we can ignore [them] … give them silly explanations … or we can take the whole puzzle apart and try other ways of assembling it that will include more of them”

Robert Pirsig

We shouldn’t be blaming wall street bankers. We should be thanking them for doing humanity a huge service … for conducting this awesome experiment and showing us that greed is a misconception. We can now (a) put this experiment (and its devastating consequences) to sleep and (b) re-examine the “greed assumption” and it’s socio-economic expressions and try to reassemble humanity in a better way.

Thank you again Raymond for bringing the PBS documentary to my attention.

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