[consulting] Returning to a solution

Sheryl gubydala at his.com
Tue Aug 11 16:18:20 UTC 2009

Domenic Santagelo wrote:

> Sheryl wrote:
>> Judging by how much Americans
>> spend on junk and how little they save for retirement, I'd say that
>> acting against self-interest is the dominant behavior.

> Your example is good but the conclusion arguable. I think this behavior
> in fact proves self-interest (if we define self-interest as "what's good
> for me, /right now/" or "being greedy").

Certainly there will always be greed, but in the majority of cases I think
it's going to be a matter of education more than greed.  And I think there
are elements in the American character that feed bad decisions in these

> If someone in America fails to
> plan for retirement, they know that the Government will provide for them
> (albeit at a minimal level), or their family members will kick in, and
> so forth. In this sense, they're acting almost purely out of greed and
> self-interest -- I'll spend my money on the things I want today, and let
> society/my family worry about me later. I would go as far as to say that
> planning for your own later years is /less/ self-interested if one of
> your main motivators is "I don't want to be a burden on my children," as
> it is for many.

But I would say that this is more often due to ignorance and "magical
thinking" than greed.  My parents, for example, have very different
attitudes toward money.  In terms of the old fable, my father is the
grasshopper and my mother the ant.  My Dad has been convinced that there's
a big Social Security fund out there rather than a lot of IOUs, he doesn't
understand that in 18 years on Social Security he's undoubtedly received
more than he ever paid in.  He thinks Mom will be just fine when he dies
and much less income from pension and social security is coming into the
house.  He never agreed to downsize to cut their expenses although Mom
wanted to.  He's gotten something of a wakeup call in the past year
because he's had medical problems that prevented him from working
part-time as he had most of the time since retirement and the co-pays
drained his meager savings.  Unfortunately he's now 80 years old and
doesn't have time to learn from the reality check.

I think this kind of optimism, fed by ignorance and magical thinking, is
more characteristic of American culture than greed per se.  Yes, it's
selfish, it's rationalization, but it's also a failure to really think
deeply about the ramifications of choices.  I also believe that in some
cases it's a factor of the religious character of Americans, which has a
strong Calvinist influence -- the whole notion that success on this earth
is an indication of how well you please God.  Even in the case of people
who are not religious, this attitude has been so ingrained that I think it
acts as subtext and goes a long way to explain why the Republican party is
supported by certain segments of the population when it really isn't in
their best interests economically.

It's the same kind of mind set, I think, that was working in the case of a
number of people I saw on TV shows about the economic downturn.  I don't
know how many times over the past year or two I saw teary people saying
that they'd been good Christians all their lives and "God won't let me
lose my house".  There have been articles about some "religious leaders"
promising "give me $10,000 and God will give you a house" and such

> A quote from "The Wealth of Nations":
> "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker,
> that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self
> interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their
> self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their
> advantages."

But that quotation doesn't speak to "enlightened self-interest" and
Americans do manage to practice a lot of that as well.  Consider some of
the environmental disasters the past few years -- sure, there was greed
practiced by some businesses that supplied relief efforts.  But there were
all sorts of people who came from other parts of the country to volunteer
time, labor and goods.  Think of the popularity of the "pay it forward"
movement a few years ago.  Nothing is so simple as the bottom line, except
maybe for a few "bottom feeders".


More information about the consulting mailing list