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What drives greed? (And what can anyone do about it?)

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 8:38AM

Our series on the cornerstones of integrity has brought us to the topic of greed and what drives it.

Success is often measured by personal net worth. Governments vie to increase their country's GDP. The ubiquitous credit card has made overspending and living beyond one’s means totally attainable. Ironically, in some countries, unless you've built a record of debt (instead of living within your means), you're deemed a credit risk.

The new generation -- bombarded by temptations and without proper parental nurturing -- easily adopts materialistic consumer values, further endorsing this new world order that "What is yours is mine, which is never enough."

Leaders of organizations and countries also encourage greed. They often pay themselves and their employees bonuses and commissions equal to or bigger than their salaries. Limitless bonuses promote greed when the incentive becomes an entitlement. To justify huge bonuses, performance appraisals are cleverly based on outputs rather than outcomes, and selfish interests instead of those of the stakeholders become the priority.

This excess becomes both more accessible and opaque when funds are drawn from coffers properly belonging to country, corporation, charity, church or club. It is appropriately termed moral hazard when losses aren't borne by the party taking the risk (because it is not their money that's put at risk).

In short, organizations and governments must not only seek the service of those who are honest and incorruptible but must also not create environments which allow those who are corrupt and dishonest to exploit. When conflict arises, the latter’s self interest will prevail, commonly and appropriately termed conflict of interest.

How to stop and reverse the process of greed?

In China today, the new premier Xi Jin Ping has launched a campaign to eradicate the wanton abuse of public funds through corruption and lavish spending on entertainment. He has even made the central committee leaders disclose their assets in order to “reassure the public they are doing the people’s business” instead of feathering their own nests. This reform has come in the wake of damaging allegations that the leaders and their families have secretly accumulated huge assets.

Few leaders, however, would admit that they themselves, their organizations or countries are corrupt. It is far easier to cast the stone at someone else. The key to reform, then, is honest introspection and self-assessment.

As a guide for this self assessment, Mahatma Gandhi described what he deemed to be the seven deadly sins:

Wealth without work
Pleasure without conscience
Science without humanity
Knowledge without character
Politics without principle
Commerce without morality
Worship without sacrifice.

What advice does Confucius have to curb greed?