What is driving the culture of greed and corruption?

Of late, we have read about how some folks have splashed out huge sums of money on high living — cruise ships, celebrity parties, expensive fashion accessories, luxury penthouse suites, lavish casino forays, art collections.

Aug 05, 2016

By Anil Netto
Of late, we have read about how some folks have splashed out huge sums of money on high living — cruise ships, celebrity parties, expensive fashion accessories, luxury penthouse suites, lavish casino forays, art collections.

What makes this galling is that the money used may not even have been theirs to spend but could have originated from public funds, allegedly, siphoned out.

Last week, we touched on the Cardinal Sin of Greed. This week, we will look at some of the social forces driving this culture of greed. Economist Thomas Piketty has pointed out that the rate of return on capital is higher than the growth rate of the economy. This explains the tremendous concentration of wealth especially in the period up to World War One.

Since then other factors have come into play, such as, institutional changes and political shocks.

Inequality in labour income may also have contributed to disparities. The rising inequality in access to skills and to higher education are among the root causes. Lack of access to skills and higher education contributes to low wages for many.

In contrast, at exclusive universities, alumni can profit from a web of connections with their fellow students, who may be children from wealthy families across the globe. This is what a certain Jho Low appears to have cultivated from his university days.

Then we have the speculation in the property market, which may offer a rapid, though at times, risky path to quick wealth.

Access to high society also leads to avenues to other connections and contracts where tickets to great wealth may lie waiting.

For a while, in the period after the great world wars, investments in public infrastructure, such as, housing, schools and hospitals led to sharp improvements in the quality of life. Wealth disparities narrowed.

But the dismantling of the social welfare security systems, especially from the 1980s, halted that trend. Instead, privatisation and neoliberal policies once again led to a concentration of wealth in fewer hands and a creeping rise in income inequality in many societies (though not as large as the pre-World War One era when the feudal system held sway).

But instead of the feudal system, what we have now are the new rulers of the world, the multinational corporations whose profits have soared on the back of a powerful culture of consumerism.

This massive consumerism is supported by consumer demand, a lot of it coming from a new middle class. This demand for consumer goods is in turn fuelled by huge amounts of money spent on corporate marketing, advertising, promotions and slick public relations.

Unfortunately, many media organisations have transformed themselves from focusing on journalism to spewing out corporate media propaganda. Whereas in the past, the media organisation's main customer was the average reader, who pays for the newspaper or a television or radio licence fee, today that is no longer the case.

The reader is now the product which is sold to advertisers. So the higher the number of readers, the greater the advertising rate the media organisation can charge advertisers for them to insert their corporate propaganda into the media. Some newspapers are even distributed free as their pages are packed with advertisements, which constitute their main revenue.

All this corporate media propaganda has fuelled a sense among the people that no matter how much is acquired or consumed, it is never enough. It fuels the sin of excessive desire or unbridled greed.

There is always something better out there — a fancier smartphone, a more powerful laptop, a sleeker luxury car, a more desirable handbag(!), an art collection perhaps. Once these are acquired, there are other things to think about: a country mansion, property investments abroad, perhaps a private executive jet.

No, it is never enough. There are always fancier models and more desirable brands and more ‘exclusive’ homes. Advertising spending has simply rocketed to stimulate flagging demand, especially in an era when workers’ real wages (after adjusting for inflation) have not risen by much.

Everywhere you go, the trappings of high living are visible — whether on billboards or on websites or in television advertisements in the middle of your favourite football game or soap opera.

What do ordinary people who cannot afford such trappings or who don’t have access to high society make of it? Well, they can literally borrow or steal.
Credit card spending has exploded in recent years. Many are now borrowing to finance their purchase of desirable items.

Others are tempted to take shortcuts —whether it is siphoning public funds, engaging in corruption or other unethical conduct, or maybe just outright robbery and theft. (Invariably, the smaller crooks get caught while it seems it is much harder to nab the white collar criminals.)

This culture of taking ‘shortcuts’ has seeped into many facets of our public life: many politicians, civil servants, even private sector executives are tempted to get-rich-quick through unethical means.

Even those who volunteer their services may not do it for altruistic motives. For example, even in a residents committee, a church committee or a civil society group, there could be those who will be looking to make private gains through cronyism and nepotism, kickbacks, siphoning of funds. Sometimes it can be really hard to know who to trust!

All this is in sharp contrast to the early Christian Church, where the followers of Jesus were urged to share what they owned with one another. In fact, those who held back or tried to profit were dealt with severely — such was the dim view taken by the apostles of those suspected of pilfering funds meant for the common good.

This is why Jesus urged his followers to sell whatever they owned and give to the poor — and to return to Caesar the coin that bore his and other worldly images. No person could serve both God and Money. We are either beholden to one or the other. That message still holds true for us to this day.

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