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The effects of greed

8/22/2007 - 09:59:11 PST

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Although the recent long run up of real estate prices was well chronicled, as was the advent of riskier mortgages lent to more and more people, nearly every expert has expressed shock at the meltdown.

Certainly Congress will hold hearings and central banks will loosen their purse strings (some already have) and, God willing, not too many folks will suffer for this credit binge, although many have lost their homes and their savings already.

Less remarked on, however, is how greed has driven so much of this bubble, just as it drove the dot-com bubble of only seven years ago. And while the phenomenon of greed is not exclusive to Americans, it increasingly seems the engine of our bubble-and-bust cycle.

The quest for greater and greater returns on investments, the desire to multiply paper wealth with the surge in property values in many parts of the country and the unrealistic expectations of people who believe they have one shot at homeownership by signing on for risky mortgages all contributed to the current state of affairs.

As the title of one book by an employee of the National Association of Realtors put it, “Are You Missing the Real-Estate Boom?” From financial fund managers to bankers to speculators to first time buyers with no money down, the answer for several years was, “Not if I can help it.” And like the dot-com bust, reality eventually set in. All the financial rules that supposedly no longer applied, in fact, did.

But in a world where the media highlights the mega-salaries of the elite, where the best and the brightest see nothing wrong with commanding compensation packages in the tens of millions of dollars annually and where so many people feel they owe it to themselves to get rich, retire young and play with their toys, it is more than likely that we will see another bubble before the next decade passes.

The church has a lot to say about greed, but its voice is barely heard above the cry of the pitchmen and pitchwomen hawking the most recent version of the Prosperity Gospel. From Oprah to the slick televangelists, the message that God wants us to be rich and will reward us here and now if we only want it badly enough and focus on it singlemindedly is devilishly successful.

The media contribute with their own pornography of envy, highlighting the lives of people who are more famous, wealthier and more beautiful than the rest of us, and telling us we can have all of this, too, if only we make the phone call now. We are a nation that has been given many gifts and many resources. Yet, how we act as steward of these gifts and resources tells more about us than the fact that we possess them. The litany is along one: The lack of health care for so many. The disregard for the weak and defenseless, including the unborn, the immigrant and the elderly. The heedless amassing of debt. The constant inflaming of our desires. The ignorance of history. The lack of humility.

The subprime mortgage market collapse may soon be yesterday’s news. But it would profit us all to make a national examination of conscience about our values before the next binge begins.

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