Of all the temptations in life my favorite by far is greed. Not for myself personally, but as a general human affliction. Other temptations like envy or lust generally lead to personal problems, marriage strains, and the like, but the fallout is usually isolated to individuals. These enticements rarely produce the major group-nosedives that accompany greed. Nor are they so universal. Most people can fight off feelings of lust for a co-worker or bitter envy towards the achievements of a more successful sibling. But few can resist greed. And there’s nothing quite like greed to lead a pack of people down the path of utter embarrassment, shame, and even prison time.
You gotta love greed. It’s just so damn lively and exhilarating.
Everyone has seen the high-profile examples of greed in action, the Enrons and Worldcoms that convert the business pages into de facto rap sheets for the wealthy. In addition to suggesting that the CEO ranks are dominated by gluttonous fools with skewed ethics, the stories show that while easy cash is enticing to everyone, it’s almost irresistible to people towards the top. Wealthy people will do almost anything to increase their wealth; it’s when a poorly thought out plan backfires on them that the true humor of greed emerges.
But the most common tales of greed usually occur outside the glare of the public spotlight. Little reported, if at all, they barely make waves (but always make for great reading). They involve “almost-affluent” people who are doing fine but feel the need to turn their wealth into even greater wealth. There’s never quite enough in the bank, so the need to make “just a little more” is ever-present. When they do earn more, the urge returns, fueling the need to repeat the process. And so on, like a junkie.
That’s the hilarious aspect to greed – it can rarely be satisfied by the gripped but they keep trying, like an aging dog in heat. But unlike lust, which can be dissipated with a quick, hushed tryst behind the office photocopier, greed can rarely be vanquished easily. The drive for wealth usually evaporates any remaining morsel of common sense in the afflicted. And that’s when the fun starts. Eventually the nosedive arrives, providing the rest of us with a chance for a good laugh.
Scammers are well aware of this design flaw present in the truly greedy. They can sniff out the scent, which is especially strong among the ranks of the “almost rich.” Smelling easy cash themselves, they hatch and promote ingenious schemes for clients looking to hit a “financial home run.” When these two insatiable groups collide, it’s like watching the players in a pair of minor league baseball teams brawl on the field while they struggle to hit the big time.
This morning I stumbled across a gem while reading the paper. I rarely read the local paper and only pick it up when I’m feeling off-kilter. The news is invariably filled with murders, assaults, missing persons, embezzlement and the like, depressing fare indeed (welcome to America ). The most up-lifting story today was entitled “Highway Construction To Begin Soon.” But there’s an added benefit to getting the paper, apart from having something to put in the bird cage. On occasion one finds a story about the “almost rich” crossing swords with a scammer extraordinaire. A battle royale ensues, without fail. This morning I struck pure gold.
A homebuilder in Oregon who churns out charmless pre-fabs decided that it was time to hit it big. Business had been very good over the years. Like a plague, his manufactured boxes had spread through the region, enabling the guy to become quite wealthy. He was “almost rich,” but the hound was barking. He needed more.
Fortunately, a horse-breeding business galloped to the rescue with a simple, foolproof plan. The company would identify and purchase promising race horses, using money provided by a “large pool” of investors. The “reproductive products” from the horses would be sold to wealthy individuals seeking to build their own stable of premier racehorses. Best of all, tax breaks would cover most of the initial cost, allowing the investor’s initial outlay to be “modest.” Big, easy returns and a chance to join a high-brow industry were sure to follow. In a year’s time you’d be standing track-side in a tweed sport coat, sipping mint juleps and hobnobbing with the thoroughbred crowd.
The company turned on the charm. They sent out their private jet from the headquarters in Houston to pick up potential investors. These future millionaires were flown to an exclusive resort in the Caribbean , where well dressed businessmen put on an impressive seminar and handed out slick, glossy brochures filled with promising financial projections. These guys were dripping cash and just throwing it around. What was an investor to think? The breeding business had to be a lucrative winner, a truly hot prospect.
A week later the plane picked up its prospective investors for an even greater adventure. Wining and dining in style, the “almost rich” guests were shuttled across the ocean to Scotland for a dazzling week of golf at Saint Andrew’s.
Meanwhile, some teenager in a Texas barn was milking an ancient pack horse with hoof and mouth disease, building up the company’s reproductive bank. The kid was spending his summer vacation underneath a wretched, braying beast culling pure liquid gold.
At first, glowing financial reports arrived in the mail. Business was booming and the stable of race horses was growing exponentially by the day. The year was projected to be a very good one for investors. The return on their investment was poised to exceed even the company’s original strong estimates. Things were looking really good for those sharp enough to jump at this unusual opportunity.
Then someone started asking questions.
Some nosy investor wanted to look at an actual horse.
A month later the investors were greeted by an absolutely shocking turn of events. The Texan businessmen were found to have almost no horses in their possession, but did sport an impressive fleet of expensive sports cars with staggering horsepower under the hood. The office was non-existent and investor money wasn’t being allocated to purchasing promising horses. It was being siphoned off to attract more investors. The gig quickly ran out of steam and people started demanding their money back after the authorities got involved.
The only thing the Texans were breeding now was resentment.
For the rest of us the fun was just starting.
The investors were shocked. They started hiring lawyers and filing lawsuits. Like a drunk, abusive parent wondering aloud how Billy could blow up his school, they moaned to reporters about how surprised and violated they felt. They bleated about just how professional and trustworthy the Texans seemed (Enron ring a bell, anyone, anyone?) Refusing to admit that they’d been duped by their own greed, they gnashed their teeth and assumed the role of innocent victims.
It’s great comedy that only costs fifty cents, for the rest of us at least.
You don’t have to be that smart to make a lot of money. Persistence, hard work, and a little luck along the way will usually do the trick. But our homebuilder/breeder proves that you do have to be smart to keep your money. The wise person is astute enough to know what he doesn’t understand and act accordingly.
I’ve actually decided to start a business that might be attractive to anyone who wants to make some big, easy money. I recently mastered a way to convert chicken fat into a harmless liquid that will make your pet stop shedding. Permanently. The stuff is absolutely amazing. But don’t worry, this isn’t some sleazy scam. I promise it’s legit, and I’ve got collateral as proof. My company and all its investments are backed up by a $20 million gem stone carved into a statue of a boy riding a water-buffalo.**
** Yesterday’s paper showed the pictures of four Oregonians sentenced to prison for running a “company” that claimed to be backed by just such collateral. The statue was allegedly stored in a safe and secure offshore bank in the Caribbean . The investors lost everything, though I suppose they’re in court somewhere fighting to retrieve the statue.
Thomas Sullivan writes short stories and essays from his home in the Pacific Northwest . His writing has appeared in Bad Idea Magazine, The Short Humour Site , and Polluto: The Anti-Pop Journal of Culture among others. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.