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

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Seven Deadly Sins–A Modern Take On How To Feel Good About Sinning, Part V (Envy And Pride)


Brattle Fuller had always wanted a BMW.  Although he had considered other cars in the same range – Mercedes, Lexus, and Porsche – he felt the BMW was right for him.  The model he wanted – the Z4 – was futuristic, powerful, and with track-ready steering and handling.  It had a state-of-the art transmission, ergonomically perfect controls, and head-turning design.

Image result for images bmw z4 2018

He had wanted such a car for years, but could never quite imagine buying one worth over $100,000.  Yet the lawyers at Young, Brewster, and Feingold – one of Washington’s most prestigious law firms and far above the mark of Brattle’s own company - had not balked at the price.  Why should they, since they were earning salaries that others even in the best law firms on K Street could only dream of?  They all had solid investments, profit sharing, and company equity.  As long as they made partner, kept bringing in new clients, and contributed to overall profitability, they would be golden for a long, long while. A  new car – even one as pricey as the Z4 – would be a drop in the bucket.  They earned more in a month that what it cost. 

Brattle watched them come out of the parking garage his firm shared with theirs with envy – not just one Z4 but three of them; not one Maserati, Alfa Romeo, and Ferrari, but a line of them, all headed to rooftop condominiums, homes in Potomac and Great Falls, or to the airport for flights to St. Bart’s.

He had at first resisted the temptation – although he had moved far from his stern Iowa upbringing, his grandfather’s distaste for excess and the showy display of it never left him.  There was nothing wrong with the rewards of hard work, said the old man, but when they became ends in themselves, a path to perdition was certain. As time went on, and as his natural talents and professional abilities helped him rise quickly in the corporate world, he lost much of his reluctance.  After all, he reasoned, if everyone was enjoying the benefits of success, why shouldn’t he.

Yet there was more to it than simple ambition.  As long as he drove cars inferior to those of his Young, Brewster colleagues; lived more modestly than they; and took his vacations no farther than Puerto Rico, he was an unhappy man.  As he saw the last in the line of cars leave the garage at 1212 K Street – the newest Tesla Roadster, an electric car that could accelerate from 0-60 in 1.9 seconds – he made up his mind.  He would join the queue.

Image result for tesla roadster images

Not only would he ski at Gstaad but own a chalet there.  Armani suits, membership at Congressional, and the brightest and most beautiful women of Milan, Paris, and New York would be his.

Envy was what motivated Brattle Fuller, helped him to realize his ambitions, and achieve the financial success to allow him the life to which he had always aspired.  Yet, his aged grandfather notwithstanding, what was the problem?  Envy, after all, is what makes America what it is.  The ambition to rise and to rise quickly, to acquire wealth and repute, and to capture the élan and gracious living of the well-to-do is the engine of economic progress.  Thornton Veblen aside, conspicuous consumption – his critique of American capitalism at the turn of the century – was the perfect expression of free market liberalism, natural human social instincts, and the value-altering power of money.  People did not work to amass great fortunes only to have them secreted away in bank vaults or anonymous off-shore investments.  Acquired wealth is worth nothing if it cannot be displayed.

The acquisition of wealth and its expenditure in a complex economy have systemic impact.  The One Percent pay nearly 50 percent of US taxes.  Their investments are lent to entrepreneurs, risk capitalists, and homeowners.  Without the invested wealth of the top earners in American society, the economic engine would falter.  Without the expenditures of the wealthy, whether cars, homes, clothes, or leisure, the industries that produce or enable them would be less competitive.

The more people that rise in the economic system and adopt the same habits of the wealthy they have envied, the more vibrant the American economy.  Despite parsimony and good Iowa puritanism, Jesus’ parable about the rich man, the camel, and the eye of the needle has little salience or resonance today. Americans are never satisfied with what they have, are as socially ambitious as ever, and fuel the economy with purchases of status and recognition.  Nothing has changed since 1899, the publication date of Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class.

Brattle Fuller is not to be shamed for his love of excess.  The President of the United States, Donald Trump, is the first president to truly reflect America and its ambitions.  His wealth, gorgeous women, yachts, mansions, resorts, and golf courses are exactly what Americans want.  Trump is a man of Hollywood, Las Vegas, and New York; and Iowans would like to leave the farm and be like him.  In today’s consumer driven, hyper-competitive and ambitious society, there is nothing wrong with conspicuous consumption.  in fact with our increasingly pluralistic society it helps to distinguish the now all-important identity groups.  It is an integral part of diversity.


Pride in many ways is the first cousin of Envy. The same driven ambition is behind both.  Pride – or to be more Biblically correct, overweening pride (a foolishly and irrationally corrupt sense of one's personal value, status or accomplishments) – cannot exist in a vacuum.  Without accomplishments, it cannot exist.  While a poor man can have such pride, he is only foolish and irrational; while a rich man can only be accused of arrogance.  Yet what is the problem with arrogance?  It is derived from hyper-competitiveness.  Anyone who has succeeded against all odds, in a hostile, implacable environment, cannot but have an overweening sense of self-confidence.  It is hard not to look down upon those of lesser talents, abilities, intelligence, and above all, desire.  To never suffer fools gladly. 

St. Paul (2 Corinthians 11:19) said, "For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise”, but like the parable of the rich man, the camel, and the eye of the needle, such advice has little relevance today.  Much is granted to him who has risen to the top.  He has a right to dismiss fools.  His arrogance – if based on accomplishment and ability – is forgiven because he will indeed clean the stables, dismiss the incompetent, and demand the most of the rest. 

Image result for images st. paul

Donald Trump is not only a man of excess but of supreme self-confidence and arrogance.  His is full of braggadocio, boast, and exaggerated claims.  Many think him unfit for the presidency because of these traits, but forget who he is and where he came from.  Of course a man from the bourgeoisie who has made his millions not from quiet investments but from big, outsized activities will be arrogant and dismissive.  He is not a Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, or Steve Jobs who built empires based on more judicious but no less innovative ideas.  He is different in the economic spheres in which he made his money.  Who ever said that Hollywood, Las Vegas, and New York real estate were for the quietly innovative, judicious, and temperate?

In other words excessive pride goes with the territory; and if, as suggested above in the discussion of Envy, he is quintessential American, then Donald Trump’s pride and arrogance are ours.

The problem of course is with those who are arrogant with no basis for it.  They are the fools that St. Paul refers to, not the wise men whose arrogance can be understood, tolerated, and even admired.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.