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Where is the line between success and greed?

What do you call someone who has worked hard and been successful to a level that they can afford the luxuries of life? They own nice cars, one or more houses, various "play toys", and take a lot of lavish trips? Add to it the fact that they properly pay all of their taxes, donate to charities and really don't flaunt their wealth. Are they successful or are they greedy? The debate in Washington DC and on the cable channels and blogs seems to brand this sort of person differently, depending upon the critic's political philosophy. Most conservative-leaning pundits call this person successful. Most liberal-leaning ones call the same person greedy. Why the difference and, more importantly, where is the line that defines these two traits?

According to the dictionary, "succeed" means "to obtain a desired object or end," whereas "greed" is defined as "a selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed." Based on these definitions, you can see where reasonable people can differ! If John Doe has savings and investments totaling $500,000, someone could consider that to be too much to retain and, therefore, the fact that John retains and saves $500,000 makes him greedy. However, such a determination or judgment of John's status may lack a few considerations. Is the fact that John has $500,000 in debt a consideration? Is the fact that John has children preparing for college or actually in college a consideration? Is the fact that John's business is cyclical and both him and his advisors project hard times ahead for John's type of business a consideration? Is the fact that John is self-employed and has no pension or retirement source other than his savings a consideration? Realize that if John has $500,000 in savings earning 5% annually, he can only receive $25,000 in annual income and, if he starts amortizing the principal, he eventually runs out of money... possibly before he and his spouse die. Most likely, to someone earning $50,000 a year or possibly just a bare minimum wage, having $500,000 in savings seems considerable! Surely someone with $500,000 in savings can afford to pay additional taxes, right? Well, I hope individuals preparing to brand John Doe as "greedy" look at his particular situation more closely before rendering judgment against him.

What if Sam Smith makes $1 million a year, after taxes, and is able to live off $250,000 a year or less, and then gives the remaining $750,000 to charitable organizations? Is Sam a success? I believe he is. However, what happens to Sam when he no longer earns $1 million a year? What if, as often happens with professional athletes, they become injured and then unemployed. Then, not only do they not make $250,000 a year, they make nothing! Would any liberal or conservative speaker label Sam as a success when he makes nothing? I doubt it. In fact, I would suspect that Sam might then need government benefits just to survive and get by. Therefore, if we can agree that Sam, based on the altered scenario just stated, is not a success (clearly, he is not greedy either, since he did not keep more of something (money) than was needed), at what level can we brand him a success? What if, earning $1 million a year, he keeps half of his money in savings after expenses? In other words, he earns $1 million after taxes, spends $250,000, and then saves $375,000 annually. At a conservative interest rate of 3%, how much must he save in order to be able to receive $250,000 a year in income, in the event he is unable to work again? Sam would need to have $8.4 million in savings to generate $250,000 in income annually. At the rate of $375,000 a year being put into savings, Sam will need to work at his current level for approximately twenty-three years to accumulate $8.4 million. Do you know many professional athletes that work for twenty-three years? If the governments (federal, state, local) add an additional 10% in taxes to his current tax obligation, Sam will pay an additional $100,000 in annual taxes (10% of $1 million is $100,000, although Sam's tax burden will be greater since the fact scenario contemplates he receives $1 million annually after taxes). As a result, he either has to reduce his charitable giving from $375,000 to $275,000, for which he will probably be called "greedy," since he is considering himself instead of the poor and needy of his community, or he will reduce his savings from $375,000 a year to $275,000 a year. At a reduced savings rate of $275,000 a year, it will take him more than thirty years to generate $8.4 million for retirement. Of course, realize that this plan does not consider the taxes that will be charges against the interest and capital gains Sam is earning annually on his savings and investments and also doesn't consider the income taxes that will be assessed against the $250,000 a year he will be receiving when he retires. It also doesn't contemplate any growth in his investments over time.

One of Aesop's Fables dealt with a very similar problem with a moral that really applies to this situation. In the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper, the ant worked all summer gathering and storing food for the winter, while the grasshopper just played around and sang all summer, gathering no provisions for winter. When winter arrives, the grasshopper finds itself dying of starvation. When he asks the ant for some food, he is rebuked by the ant for his idleness. This story is often used to teach the virtues of hard work and saving, and the perils of improvidence.

If we assume the ant gathered just enough food to sustain himself and his family until spring, was he successful or greedy? The answer to that question might depend on your point of view. If you are a member of the ant's family, I'm sure you would consider him successful. He got his family through the winter! However, if you were the grasshopper, he (the ant) was clearly greedy! He refused to share his food with me, even though he had plenty. If you are not the ant or the grasshopper and you considered the ant to be successful, does your opinion change if, at the end of winter, the ant had food left over? If food was left over after winter and the ant didn't share it with the grasshopper, did that make him greedy? What if the ant sensed that the upcoming year was not going to be prosperous and, based on those feelings, he wanted to store more food, in the event his family needed it for the next winter?

What I find interesting -- and I was guilty of this as well -- is that the finger-pointing in the fable fact situation was toward the ant with the food savings. The discussion was as to whether or not he was successful or greedy and as to why he should share. Why weren't we pointing fingers at the grasshopper? After all, if he has been more industrious in the summer, he would have had his own food supply to use and would not have needed the ant's assistance.

If we use the scenario related in the fable as being those who work industriously and store up savings for the future versus those who either don't work, can't work, don't save, or have catastrophic events that deplete their savings, we can still apply the same moral to it. Although many socially conscious people out there hate to say it, it is clear that there are a lot of grasshoppers out there. Those are people who spent their adult life singing and playing, but not necessarily planning for the "winter" of their lives. As a result, they have little or no savings and then expect or demand either their government or the "corporate jet owners" and other "wealthy" people to take care of them. Much like the ant, do we simply tell them to go away and die? I don't believe there are any reasonable people out there who really want that. However, these are people who should have and could have helped themselves and chose not to. On the other hand, there are those people out there who, by reason of circumstances, couldn't save food for the winter. They need our help. I believe most of us want to help them too. Using the fable story, who would you be more willing to want to help? If the ant's food storage was plundered and lost to other creatures, or destroyed and rendered useless in a flood, would you be more willing to help the ant, or the grasshopper who chose not to gather food for the winter? Remember, you can only help one. If we choose to try and help both, we all starve and die, because there just isn't enough to go around.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, I remember a talk show host saying he is not willing to help the VICTIMS of the Hurricane. However, he is willing to help the SURVIVORS of it. The difference in the desire to help and to share the wealth is not in the person who is GIVING the money. The difference is in the person RECEIVING. If someone who is needy -- whether that need was self-induced or caused by circumstances -- feels they have a right to receive assistance from someone who is successful and if they similarly feel if the person does not help them they are greedy, then anyone might understand the successful person's reluctance to help. I recently saw a beggar on a street corner for two full weeks holding an empty gasoline can, feigning that he was out of gas and needed help. It was amazing that, after two full weeks, he still couldn't fill up his car! Several years ago I saw another man standing with a sign "will work for food" right next to a "help wanted" sign for a restaurant near where he was standing! Clearly, neither of these beggars were sincere. I always liked the sign I saw in the newspaper that a man was holding on a street corner. It read, "I ain't gonna lie, I want a drink!"

Clearly, there is class envy and class warfare in our society. The needy abhor the wealthy and their greed, but demand that the government give them enough to survive.... from these same wealthy individuals and businesses. The wealthy and successful individuals and businesses generally want to help, and do so through their charitable contributions. I will admit that the "incentive" for some wealthy individuals is not to help the needy, but to avoid taxes on income. However, regardless of the incentive, they are willingly giving to churches, charities, and other organizations.

In conclusion, I ask you to ponder the following: If the government is going to increase my taxes so that I don't get to keep as much, do I (A) cut back my giving to charity and save more; (B) cut back my spending in order to save the same amount I was saving before; or (C) increase my giving to charity since I was required to increase my giving to the government? Most reasonable people would consider option (A). If the government is taking more away from me, I don't have as much surplus to share with the needy. As a result, they get less and require MORE help from the government. Of course, the government doesn't have enough (That's why it raised taxes in the first place!), so it will put demands on the wealthy to give more with higher taxes again! Option (B) is a possible solution. However, the mindset of most people is not to reduce spending, even if it means reducing what they save. Option (C) is probably too far-fetched! Do you know of anyone who, because the government takes more from them in tax dollars, also wants to increase the amount they are giving to charity? Of course, if they do give more to charity, doesn't that reduce the amount subject to taxes? If they are then using that charitable tax "loophole" to avoid paying taxes, are they then again branded as "greedy"?

There is a famous verse from the Christian Bible's Gospel of Matthew that states, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." Such a philosophy should be followed by those political commentators pointing fingers and determining who is wealthy, greedy and needy. Calling all wealthy people greedy or unpatriotic because they object to new or higher taxes or because they properly use the current system to reduce or eliminate tax liability does little to help them want to help the needy. It also does little to endear the needy to these perceived narcissistic bourgeoisie. I believe the time has come to stop waging the war of words and class envy. Although this approach might sound completely offensive and counterproductive to the liberal mindset, why not reduce taxes on the wealthy? If they make more or get to keep more, they probably spend more. They probably give more. If they spend more, then businesses need to employ more. If they employ more, then those people -- those SURVIVORS -- can earn more. When they earn more, they can give some as well. When they give some and that money is mingled with the money the wealthy are giving as well, then possibly we'd all have enough to take care of not only the needy, but also the victims and the grasshoppers out there too.

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