Fussy Props of Grandeur

at 11:35 PM

My friends say the problem with today's robber barons is that they're greedy egomaniacs. But I don't think that nails it. What after all is egomania? It's some extreme on a continuum I ride, too. No, it's not all about me, but for me, it's mostly about me. I thrive on endorphment, the endorphin rush of getting endorsed.  Who doesn't?  Likewise with greed. I purr when I win. I prefer personal gain to personal loss.

There's no clearly marked line between standard issue ego and egomania, or between normal and abnormal pursuit of personal property. Some crimes are easy to identify. If you kill someone, you've crossed the line into murder. But greedy egomania? Pretty fuzzy line to cross. I'm not hypocrite enough to fault today's robber barons for being like me.

No, what I object to is the mindlessness of their greedy egomaniacal campaigns. Like all of us, today's robber barons have lucked into the game of life, a game whose object they get to make up for themselves. With their talent and resources they have extraordinary range in choosing the object of the game, and the best they can come up with is to accumulate as much money as possible and to spend it on the fussy props of grandeur, more stuff than they can find time to enjoy.

Even the original robber barons did better than that. They, too, got their egos stroked accumulating their wealth, but they also created railroads, oil fields and factories. They harnessed their greedy egomania in ways that contributed to general welfare.  Most of today's robber barons, especially in the financial sector, undermine general welfare. A few set up big foundations that serve the broader community. But most of them don't.

We, the lucky living are all burdened and graced with the question, "What should I do with my life?" "What's the most I can do with what I'm dealt?"  Today's robber barons have come up with laughably lame answers.

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With a Perspective, I'm Jeremy Sherman.

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Jeremey Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist and rhetoric professor at the University of San Francisco.

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