A respected former boss of mine commented the other day that about his time in Andersen when the whole firm was brought down due to greed by a few partners on the Enron account. A chapter of the book, Flirting with Disaster, is devoted to this collapse and is painted as caused by the toleration of an unusually high degree of so-called aggressive accounting practices. Andersen relaxed its historical ethical standards which had spared it from the 1980’s Savings and Loan crisis. In the conflict between its two values of accounting integrity and growth, the 1990’s saw it favour growth.
And so today when reading an article in The Age, I noticed this quote:
In Enough: True measure of money, business and life (soon to be published in the US), John Bogle recounts a conversation between now deceased writers Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, overheard at a party. Vonnegut asked Heller how it felt to know that the man across the room had probably made more money the previous day than Heller made from Catch 22 during all the years of its published life. Heller replied, “I have something he will never have — enough.”
While the current financial quagmire is more due to the inappropriate risk instruments than overt greed as such, it does call into question the notion of ethics in business deals. This has been debated ever since mercantilism took hold and no doubt beforehand when tribal groups were trading handicrafts. What constitutes a fair deal as compared to when someone is taking a greater share than is warranted? And what is it in our make-up that we can tolerate having enormous wealth while others nearby live in abject poverty?
In the end, it comes down to a concept called ‘enoughness’. There is the classic study that has been conducted which tests people with the following question: Would you prefer to get $100,000 a year if everyone else is getting $150,000 or would you prefer to have a worse living condition and receive just $70,000 but in a situation where everyone else gets $50,000. Most people answered the latter. They prefer relative financial wealth over absolute wealth. They want to be better than others even if they are not as well off (so long as they have their basic needs met).
Different people have different notions of when enough is enough. But having a limit and realising that one has reached a boundary is critical to overcoming the excesses of greed. Most Baby Boomers and an increasing proportion of Gen Xers in the Western world had reached that state (owning own home, some investments, retirement pension) and were beginning to explore other sources of meaning in life (travel, sport, meditation, conversations, etc). The transformation from greed to enoughness only occurs when one gains the understanding that the existential problems of life are resolved (that is, when one understands the concept of enoughness and is able then to free up energy to explore new avenues and new issues).