It's easy to attack the so-called greedy members of society, be they politicians such as Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw or bankers receiving crazy bonuses. But for all of our (largely justifiable) outrage, the people we are attacking come from the same society as we do. They relentlessly chase riches because they've been conditioned by a population that does the same.
I often hear people reflect on how 'well' someone is doing in life, their only evidence being the person's salary, size of their house or the quality of their car. Rarely do we question whether their wealth creates happiness, even though there is realms of evidence that suggests otherwise. Society's obsession with wealth is reflected by the way we idolise the famous - sometimes for their popularity but often for their wealth. Television is rife with game-shows and we all have an 'if I win the lottery' scenario. We will wilfully destroy the environment to achieve financial gain, but protect it if it means financial loss. At work, we chase ever-increasing targets, 'commercial awareness' is on every appraisal, our time is monetised and quality is sacrificed for profit.
When we are so wedded to the idea that money drives success is it any wonder that the people we elect to represent us take advantage? It's only natural that influential, educated people we put on a pedestal feel entitled to more. Indeed, many people argue they should be paid more. Of course, the majority believe they should be doing their job out of civic duty, but how many of us do the same? How many of us would turn down the opportunity to earn an extra few quid if it was within the rules? How many would take a lower salary in favour of helping others? If we truly believed in civic duty, we would pay higher taxes, donate more to charity, give inheritance to the state or turn down state pensions we do not need.
I'm not excusing the actions of Mr Straw and Mr Rifkind, nor am I saying all politicians (or society) are the same. But, rather than crying outrage or creating a tighter web of rules, we should look at the underlying cause - a society that produces this kind of behaviour.
Obviously money is important to our wellbeing. It provides shelter, sustenance and security. Money allows us to see new places, learn new skills and enjoy different experiences. It gives us the freedom to live a life of hope and creativity, rather than one of fear and paranoia. A lack of money can obviously have devastating consequences, and is why inequality is such an issue. But when we get to the point where our basic needs are assured, as is the case for so many of us, the emphasis should move elsewhere.
The challenge of course, is defining where basic need ends. Isn't it all relative? One person's luxury is another person's poverty and all that? Well apparently not. In his book Thinking fast and slow, Daniel Kahnemann cited a study in the United States which demonstrated that happiness doesn't increase when earnings go beyond $40,000. Many other studies suggest the same. Obviously this figure will vary but it does make a mockery of the argument that politicians should be paid more, and that bankers deserve their bumper bonuses. The truth is, they don't actually need this extra money, and it is very unlikely to increase their happiness anyway.
Obviously the banker would be less happy on a salary of £30,000, as would Malcolm Rifkind, but this is based on conditioning, not the actual impact of money or the objects it can buy. All the expensive car actually offers is a slight increase in comfort and the ability to get from a to b quicker. A £20 handbag is as good at carrying your purse as a £300 equivalent. Yet many of us will spend huge amounts of our salary on the more expensive of the two. The true reason we crave more money is because of the status it provides. Money is inextricably linked to how we judge our success, and is why Malcolm Rifkind was so quick to use words such as 'entitled' when justifying his actions.
But it doesn't have to be this way. The key is to break money's link with status, or to remove the importance of status altogether. True happiness is achieved through introspection, gratitude, helping others and an acceptance of the world around us (see my previous blog). The greed and selfishness of accumulating wealth couldn't be further from achieving that.
To prevent decades of more greedy politicians, we need to build a culture where success and status are defined by the size of your heart, not your bank balance.