"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Seven Deadly Sins–A Modern Take On How To Feel Good About Sinning, Part II (Greed)

Jacko Barnes was a successful businessman and entrepreneur.  He had made his first million by the time he was twenty-eight, his tenth million a few years later, and untold millions a decade after that.  Making money had always been second nature for him.  His mother would always tell stories about how little Jacko turned lemonade stands into an enterprise, enlisted other fifth-graders to distribute flyers advertising Flynn Bros., a local soft drinking bottling works which had held its own against Coke and Pepsi, but could always use publicity.  John Flynn, a first generation Irishman who himself was an entrepreneur who cut himself loose from the beer and tavern business in Boston to set up a bottling works in New Brighton, a working class town which had no pretensions, little money to spend, never shy about bottle-return soft drinks, and whose residents were as thirsty as those in Farmington, West Hartford, and Simsbury.

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Flynn had never thought of marketing or publicity since the family property was on the corner of two of New Brighton’s busiest thoroughfares – one south to Berlin, Meriden, and New Haven; the other east to Newington and Wethersfield.  Commuters found time to stop for a cold sarsaparilla, throw a mixed case of birch beer, root beer, cream soda, and celery soda in the trunk, and return a week later for a refill.

Jacko saw that the school trade was underrepresented at Flynn’s.  Parents told their children to avoid the busy intersection and to go home by secondary roads.  As a result, what should have been a promising trade never materialized.  Until Jacko suggested to Mr. Flynn that if he could convince the city to put a light on the corner, he would guarantee him business from Vance, Stanley, and Porter elementary schools; and eventually from New Brighton High.

Although Flynn was skeptical at first – especially since the idea came from a fifth-grader – he thought a light would be a good idea in any event.  The slowed traffic coming up the hill from Corbin Avenue would make a turnoff into his lot even easier.  If a driver had to wait at the top of the hill, why not stop in for a cold soda and a case.

The modestly increased sales at Flynn’s is beside the point.  Jacko Barnes’ innate understanding of commercial enterprise – assumption of risk, valuation of labor and capital, market potential, and where and when advertising and promotion made sense – was.

At Yale Jacko saw opportunity everywhere.  Freshman were delivered to the Old Campus with clothes, armchairs, carpets, and reading lamps, but no one had informed parents that that there was no refrigeration in Wareham and Langley Halls.  A cold Coke was as far away as the Student Center on Whitney Avenue or past the Green closer to the parking garage than the Woolsey Hall dining room.  Within a month Jacko had found a distributor of used refrigerators, had bought an old ‘49 hearse for transporting them, and enlisted a classmate studying mechanical engineering to be a trouble-shooter and fixer.

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Once Jacko moved from the Old Campus into one of the residential colleges, he took over the laundry franchise, and made thousands.

Again, the story is less about these first enterprises and their successes or failures, but about Jacko’s innate sense of business.  He not only understood how to make money, but loved making it.
After he had made his first millions, he had no intention of slowing, retiring, or moving to another line of interest.  He knew that he could make untold millions, and that was the point.  He neither coveted wealth, nor was niggardly or greedy concerning it.  It was an ineluctable path.  He could no sooner have become a college professor than a serious artist a businessman.

For Jacko there was never penury or cold.  He lived well but simply.  He had little interest in spending his fortune which invested wisely increased yearly.  He could have had homes in Rimini, Gstaad, St. Bart’s and Palm Beach but he remained in small gated community near Wilmington, Delaware; and maintained only one other home in the mountains outside of Livingston, Montana.

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Jacko was not unlike the Robber Barons of the early Twentieth Century – the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Mellons, and Cranes – who built companies and fortunes but whom no one could call greedy or avaricious.  They, like Jacko, knew how to make money, loved the enterprise, the challenge, the product of their labors, and the recognition for it.  Even though they never stopped their ambitious corporate expansions, entry into new industries, and consolidation of old ones; they never had a love for money per se.  They saw themselves as essential to the still new Republic.  Without them there would be no energy, no railroads, no homes and office buildings.

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Greed in the original Biblical sense was a concept derived from Christ’s parable of the rich man, the camel, and the eye of the needle.  Wealth in and of itself was not wrong, but its pursuit unfailingly led those who sought it down a perilous road to faithlessness and perdition.

There is more wealth than penury in America today, more middle and upper classes than lower, more upward mobility and the opportunity for betterment than ever before.  Furthermore, the complex modern economy ensures that wealth does not accumulate in gold coins under the mattress, but is invested, borrowed, and used for more economic activity.  The more wealth produced, the better.

There are angry naysayers, those who think that Biblical greed and perdition are alive and well today; that accumulated wealth is ipso facto immoral; that no one should need more than a simple living wage; and that capitalism should have its limits.  Yet Christ never said that accumulation of wealth was wrong, unhealthy, or immoral – only that there was a danger in doing so.  Lucre only becomes filthy when it becomes desired above all else, ascribed a value that is disproportionate to its inherent worth.  There is nothing immoral about the showy, glitzy, displays of yachts, tiaras, golf courses, and bottomless billions spent at Cartier’s, Bendel’s and Monte Carlo.  They are only in poor taste, but not the end result of greed.

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Money, its acquisition and expenditure, is nothing more than currency – to be used however for whatever.

An economist at the World Bank once questioned the judgement of a minion who had claimed that there was price gouging in the water industry. “What exactly is that”, the economist asked.  His sarcastic riposte meant only that supply and demand to an economist are sacrosanct.  If prices are too high, demand will slacken, and prices will lower.

Greed is not so simple these days.  In an environment of plenty is it greedy to want more? Is pushing and shoving to get the best cuts of meat on the Sabbath or iftar greed or just bad manners? Or paying the waiter for a good table? Or incentives, bribes, and sweetening the pot?

Jacko Barnes was never greedy in any sense of the term.  The ambitious accumulation of wealth was done for its own sake and for the challenge and adventure of making it.  He cared nothing for elaborate displays of wealth.  Other than a few indulgences no different from men with a fraction of his net worth (a new Corvette, and a vintage MG), his money was invisible.

There is a lot of play in all moral concepts, and the days of Biblical injunction are long past.  It takes a lot to be greedy these days – a combination of bad taste, stupidity, and some errancy.  Every dollar made and dollar spent occur within a complex network of economic choices and factors.  To make it simple – there is no such thing as greed.

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