Maxed Out 

The Annals of Greed – Part II

By G.D. Maxwell

For what it’s worth, greed is one of the seven deadly sins. And depending on how you define covetousness, it falls under the Commandment warning us about drooling over all those cool things our neighbours have.

Despite being one of the on-ramps to Hell, that didn’t stop the One True Religion from building gilded monuments and surrounding its henchmen with silk and gold... to the greater glory of God, of course. Tithing peasants never bought that whopper but what did they matter?

The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas – founder of all those Aquinas Centres – said of greed: "...it is a sin directly against one's neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound in external riches, without another man lacking them...." Several centuries later, scientists have refined that thought, corrected its zero-sum premise, and helped to explain why people make the choices they do. I’ll explain later.

But for now, let’s follow a tangent back to 18 th century France. Denis Diderot was a philosopher, which is to say he wasn’t a painter, didn’t know how to make wine and wasn’t likely to inherit anything of real value. One of his friends, noting Monsieur Diderot’s tatty old bathrobe, gave him a gift of a luxurious, scarlet dressing gown – a misnomer if ever there was one since anyone lolling about in a ‘dressing gown’ never seems to actually get dressed.

Well, Denis was pretty stoked. He wore his new robe all the time. But then a funny thing happened. He began to notice how shabby the rest of his life was. Truth be told, Denis lived like a pig. His furniture was busted and uncomfortable, his rugs were almost see-through, his study looked more like a prison cell than a place a philosopher might sit around and be philosophical.

"This won’t do," he said, but in French. Since he’d already taken his old robe to the Re-use-It Centre, the only thing left to do was replace his familiar, comfy furnishings with new ones. So he did. And in the end, Denis found himself philosophizing in much grander, but less comfortable, surroundings. He also grew to really, really hate that scarlet dressing gown, being as it was the thin edge of the wedge.

In her book The Overspent American , Harvard economist Juliet Schor calls this the Diderot Effect. Get it? Anyway, Ms. Schor says it explains why, for example, people feel an overwhelming compulsion to buy new furniture when they move into a new house, new ties to go with new suits, and so on.

Of course, it doesn’t explain why aging boomers with tiny ponytails and big cigars listen to ‘golden oldies’ in their new Lexus but it certainly explains the greatest scourge currently threatening North America: HGTV. HGTV is all about being constantly dissatisfied with your surroundings and renovating. Renovation – not knowing when to leave well enough alone – most often starts with being dissatisfied with your kitchen wallpaper and ends up with hopelessly underqualified people gutting their homes, hating each other and running off to divorce courts. Understandable, given its roots. Renovate: vt. from the Latin reno , stupid idea; and vate , sucker. But I digress.

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