Greed may be considered a sin, but it's also a universally understood emotion. Pretty much everyone knows what it's like to see what someone else has and want it for yourself. It's only human to want more than what one has and most of the time that isn't a problem.
That's because most people tame their greed, they hold onto it and don't let it get the best of them only acting on it when it's at least moderately appropriate and operating with at least some understanding that other humans are affected by their actions.
Then there's corporate CEOs, or at least those at Worldcom.
The CEOs of Worldcom, and other companies such as Qwest, Enron, Adelphia and Tyco did something amazing. They took a look at the millions they had and decided that they needed (and deserved) millions more even if it meant defrauding the public, ruing their company and destroying the lives of their employees.
For example, take Tyco Head Dennis Kozlowski, he and a top deputy sold over $500 million in Tyco stock just before it plummeted. Former Worldcom executive Bernard Ebbers owes his company over $400 million in loans he made to himself to buy Worldcom stock. If you think that's big, former Adelphia CEO John Rigers, who was recently arrested, borrowed $1 Billion (with a "B") from his own company to buy Adelphia stock.
This greedy "hand in the till" mentality led to accounting fraud. In almost every case, the company involved began inflating revenues using tricks such as self-dealing (buying and selling to itself to generate false revenue), off-the-book partnerships (using a separate business to take on corporate debts) and good old-fashioned lying. It was a house of cards that was doomed to tumble and take the economy down with it.
But that didn't matter.
The result is that now people who can barely pay for their mortgage have their retirement accounts wiped out, mothers and fathers with bills to pay have lost their jobs and people like myself who are new to the job market are being faced with an uphill battle. All of this because a few CEOs, most of whom were making over a million per year anyway, decided they deserved more wealth than what they had.
If there was ever a case against capitalism, this is it. Even Fidel Castro, the last great Communist leader in the world, seized upon the point in a recent speech to commemorate the anniversary of his revolution. But while his comments ring hollow due to the poverty-stricken nature of his country, his point is hard to miss.
As a capitalistic society, we accept the fact that a select few are going to rise up and make a lot of money without doing a lot of work. We realize that disparities in both wealth and power are impossible to avoid in a society motivated by self-interest and that those at the top will have incredible power and reap unbelievable riches.
All that we ever asked in return was a little honesty, that those in power who reap the fruits of capitalism have the integrity to not destroy the tree.
Apparently though, we can't count on that. Instead, what's happened is that a handful of men through sheer greed have done more damage to the economy than Osama Bin Laden and his band of terrorists could have ever dreamed. It wasn't a band of box cutter weilding maniacs that brought the stock market down, but rather a handful of money-grubbing suits and perhaps a fundamental flaw in the way our economy works.
But the worst part about this isn't that it calls in to question our economic system, but our legal system as well. Because despite the fact these people have stolen many times the amount of money heisted in all of the bank robberies between 1996-2001 and have done irreparable damage they've done to our economy, the chances of convictions, especially for long sentences, are slim.
Most legal experts agree that the combination of high-priced defense attorneys and confusing accounting issues will make convincing a jury very difficult. If these CEOs make it to trial, the likelihood that they could go free goes up and the odds of even a light prison sentence sinks.
But the lesson that I'm going to carry away from this is that while greed may be a universal emotion, it obviously knows no limit. I can now say I've watched in awe as men who were many times wealthier than I could ever dream of being ruined thousands, if not millions of lives through lies and deception solely to get more. I'd like to think there'd be a point in which people would at least be greedy for something other than money, self-fulfillment perhaps. But instead, these people decided the path to happiness was simply more cold hard cash and trashed a nation's ideals to get it.
While I hope that I'm never that greedy, the truth is that I'll never know and odds are neither will you. It does matter how mad I get at these white-haired thieves, the blunt truth is that I don't know how I'd act if I had millions of dollars in my back pocket and without actually being there, I never will. I can only hope that I'd conduct myself with more compassion and reason than they did, because if not, then we've exposed not a flaw with a few venomous individuals, but the entire economic and legal system. Flaws we'll have to address as a society. And soon.