The Under-Recognized Passion… and Its Future

Most of us, when someone mentions passion, think of sex, at least first. But an article in New Scientist got me to thinking about another passion that is far stronger and far less recognized than sex — greed.

In January 1820, a transplanted German who had taken the British name of Frederick Accum published a book, Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons. The book provided an expose of how those in London’s food trade adulterated their wares and poisoned their consumers. Accum named names and spared no one, illustrating how bakers used gypsum and pipe clay in bread, how lemonade was flavored with sulfuric acid, how new wines were aged with sawdust, how phony green tea was created by using poisonous copper carbonate.

And what was the reaction to Accum’s book? It sold out, and, then, there were anonymous threats against him. Those who didn’t like what he wrote followed him around until he was observed ripping several pages containing formulae from a book in the Royal Institute library. He was immediately charged with theft, and his reputation attacked and destroyed, all for the sake of profit, however obtained. Although the charges were dismissed, Accum was forced to return to Germany. Not until thirty years later did the British medical journal, The Lancet, and Dr. Arthur Hill Hassail address the problem, and Parliament finally passed the Food Adulteration Act in 1860. It took far longer in the United States, until after the muckraking of the early 1900s.

You think that’s all in the past? Flash forward to today.

We have had the experience of cheap pet food from China being contaminated, and almost every week, some food manufacturer is recalling something. It’s not just food, either. It goes well beyond food.

Enron built a phony trading room in order to further its energy shell game, and then left all the shareholders and employees holding the bag. Similar shenanigans occurred with WorldCom and Global Crossings. And what about all the sleazy mortgage brokers who sold naive homeowners mortgages that they wouldn’t be able to afford once the “teaser” rates vanished? Or the payday lenders who charge effective interest rates of 100% and more?

Even in “legitimate” commerce, greed has its place, from the hedge fund traders who make hundreds of millions of dollars for shifting paper… a number of whom just lost hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars… to the airline industry.

As just one example, airlines have scheduled 61 flights to depart from New York’s JFK International Airport between 8:00 A.M. and 9:00 A.M. every morning. There’s the small problem that existing systems and technology only allow for 44 departures. The Federal Aviation Administration has suggested either: (1) charging airlines more for “prime” take-off slots or (2) limiting the number of flights per hour. The Airline Transport Association, representing the major carriers, finds both of these options unacceptable and states that the FAA needs to adopt new GPS-based and high-tech radar control systems. The FAA probably will have to do this sooner or later, but there’s a small problem. It’s called funding. The airlines don’t want to pay for improving a system that’s already highly subsidized by the taxpayers; the Congress doesn’t want to; and passengers don’t want to.

What else is greed besides not wanting to supply honest goods — in this case, on-time departures — for a reasonable price? Instead of trying to solve the problem, the airlines and the politicians will ensure we’ll get more delays because everyone wants a service more cheaply than it can be provided… and that’s also a form of greed.

Oh… and by the way, in 1820, the last section of Accum’s Treatise concluded by recommending that “the painting of toys with colouring substances that are poisonous, therefore, ought to be abolished.”

So why are we still seeing children poisoned by lead paint, almost 200 years later? And why this will still be a problem fifty or a hundred years or more into the future?

Tell me again why greed isn’t stronger than sex. Except… sex sells more books, and I keep trying to ignore that, because sex is transitory, and greed isn’t.