Greed + Efficiency = Poison: What to Do About Greed?


What is in the strawberry jam you bought at the grocery store? You might wonder if it is sweetened with sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Or perhaps you might look at the ingredients label to see if strawberries or sugar is the first ingredient. You would not, however, wonder: does it have strawberries in it?  You might be suspicious of whether something labeled strawberry flavored jello actually has strawberries in it, but if the label says “strawberry jam” you assume it is made from strawberries, not apples. Safe assumption today, but not in the 19th century, early 20th century United States. There were no regulations on labeling food, no requirement to list ingredients. Greed and ingenuity led people to figure out how to make something that was sweet, looked like strawberry jam, was labeled as strawberry jam, sold at the price of strawberry jam, but had no strawberries in it. Instead of expensive strawberries they mashed up apple peelings, added grass seeds and red dye and called it strawberry jam. Greed and ingenuity led others to combine sawdust, wheat, beans, beets, peas, and dandelion seeds, scorch the mixture black, grind it and sell it as coffee. Ground stone was added to flour, Milk was diluted with water and then those greedy actors would cover their deed by adding plaster of paris or chalk to the mix.

This sort of thing has probably gone on for centuries—whether through putting a finger on the scale or through deception, dishonest greedy food sellers have cheated their customers. At times the deception was dangerous—people got sick, some died—mostly they just got cheated. With greater technical capabilities, however, things changed. What happens when you combine not just greed and ingenuity, but add technique/efficiency?

Deborah Blum writes, “By the end of the nineteenth century, the sweeping industrial revolution—and the rise of industrial chemistry—had brought a host of new chemical additives and synthetic compounds into the food supply. Still unchecked by government regulation, basic safety testing, or even labeling requirements, food and drink manufacturers embraced the new materials with enthusiasm, mixing them into goods destined for the grocery store at sometimes lethal levels” (2). Chemists gave food producers new ways to deceive and profit. Formaldehyde offered new embalming practices to undertakers, not a problem, but in food?! Producers found it not only worked as a preservative—enabling unrefrigerated meat to last longer—it actually restored the appearance of decaying meat or spoiled milk. It and other chemical preservatives used at that time, such as salicylic acid, caused sickness and death.

Not just preservation, but substitution. Producers found it more efficient to substitute chemical ingredients in place of actual food—for instance, saccharine, discovered in 1879, was much cheaper than sugar. Many of these chemical additives ended up causing significant health problems. The need for regulation and labeling was obvious, legislation was regularly introduced with broad popular support, yet it failed. Food producers and new chemical companies, like Monsanto and Dow, successfully blocked it for decades.

Blum, in her book The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, chronicles many examples of intentional corruption of food, the dogged efforts to expose the dangers through testing, the denial and obfuscation by the producers, and the eventual success in passing legislation and in forming the Food and Drug Administration. Certainly there is too much government regulation in places, but this book makes it clear that we cannot rely on people or corporations to self-police. Where greed is present there will be problems. (I am summarizing a whole book in a few paragraphs. I want to be careful to make clear it was not all the food producers. Some, Heinz for instance, did not deceive nor use dangerous additives. Those producers who did not deceive were leading proponents of laws about honest labeling.)

Although these are stories from the past, the combination of greed and technique continues to poison life today. Just yesterday I read an article in TIME magazine, on how in many countries generic drugs do more harm than good. How? Generics, made in places like India and China, are cheaper than the originals made in North America or Europe. They are supposed to be, and are sold as, the chemical equivalent. But in reality the generic manufacturers often put different amounts of the active ingredient in pills with the same label. If it is going to a country with vigilant regulators they include the full amount, to countries with the less regulation they put in less, and to countries with the least regulation or enforcement they include much less in each pill. Read the article to find out how that is dangerous not only for the patient, but for all of us.

The combination of greed and technique, and its destructive consequences are, of course, not limited to food and drugs. I could share many examples. Here is just one I heard a couple weeks ago. Michael Lewis, in his podcast, “Against the Rules,” tells stories of the importance of referees in our lives—both literal sports referees and people and agencies that play that role in other area of our lives.  In the middle of the second episode, dedicated to the lack of referees in the arena of consumer finance, he explains the seven minute rule practiced at Navient a student loan servicing company. Lewis recounts one school teacher’s repeated efforts, stretched over months, to get help from Navient on entering a public service loan forgiveness program. Why did she have so much trouble? A key factor is that Navient makes its money through servicing loans for the Department of Education. The less time they spend on each person, the more money they make. The goal was for employees to spend seven minutes or less with each caller. Their computer tracked their performance efficiency throughout the day with color coded bars displaying, in real time, how much over or under the seven minute average they were for the day. They got bonuses if they stayed under. So who were the most prized employees? The ones paying more attention to the clock than to what the caller actually needed. Navient did not care whether the school teacher got the help she needed to enter the loan forgiveness program—they would lose money if she did. She missed the deadline for the program because of the incomplete help she got from her many calls. Greed combined with efficiency is hurting people today as it was a century ago.

Deborah Blum and Michael Lewis share these stories to emphasize the importance of regulations and the enforcement of regulations. In essence they are saying, because of some people’s greed we need controls for our protection. We have all experienced the frustration of government regulations gone awry, but next time you read a label or look at the list of ingredients on a food product give thanks that we have those regulations.

Blum and Lewis make a good point about the need for regulations. I, however, was left wondering: How about the root problem, greed? What can the church do to lessen greed? In the middle of Blum’s book I found myself wondering how I could re-arrange my ethics course to spend an hour reviewing examples of the damaging consequences that flow from greed combined with technique and then talk about how the church could confront greed more directly.

I continue to think lessening greed is of great importance, but I am less sure that we need to talk more about greed. I do not think we need to more often say “don’t be greedy!” Would that do any good?

Jesus and the Bible do talk about greed, but not in a bounded-group, finger-pointing sort of way. Rather it is more of a warning—greed is not good for you or others. So yes, let’s talk more often about greed, but more in the sense of truth-telling, exposing—let people know it does not deliver. It is not the path to shalom. But more important than warning people to get off the greed path, let us ponder what we are doing to help them experience the alternative—the richness that flows from loving service to others and the security of rooting our status not in consumption fueled by greed but in our belovedness by God.

I am left thinking that rather than attacking greed it is much better to promote generosity. How can we increase our generosity and encourage others in generosity?

As people aware of the reality of sin and powers of evil let us affirm the need for appropriate and well managed regulations. As bearers of the gospel let us contribute to more shalom in the world through inviting others to join us in the way of Jesus and join us in practicing generosity.



Posted on June 5, 2019 .