The deadliest sin

One scoop of ice cream, or two?

"Envy is the one deadly sin that isn't any fun." - Charlie Munger

One of the notorious images that emerged from the last four years is the tale that the President insisted on getting two scoops of ice cream for dessert, while others at the table received only one. Nobody really found this story hard to believe, since it’s a tale of a man trying to weaponize envy. Anyone with enough mojo to be invited to the White House for dinner surely also has the wherewithal to walk from 16th Avenue to 17th Avenue and shell out $2.19 for a McFlurry. The display wasn’t about anyone’s intrinsic demand for ice cream — it was about creating envy.

Envy is purely a relative phenomenon. We can only envy what others have and what we do not. Yet envy is a mighty force — so mighty we know what color it is. (Quick: What color is gluttony?) Rationally, most intelligent people would acknowledge that absolute standards are more important. Virtually anyone living in America today is, by any objective standard, far better off than Cornelius Vanderbilt ever was. But still we are surrounded by tremendous restlessness stoked almost entirely by envy.

In small doses, of course, it’s possible that a dollop of envy might motivate us to work a little harder or strive a little more. But in big doses, or in big numbers even of small doses, envy is toxic. It turns people to external standards rather than internal ones. It makes them search for relative gaps rather than absolute success. And it assuredly motivates bad reasoning for big decisions with other people’s resources — whether by executives who use company resources to salve their envy of the perks and pay given to their rivals, or by politicians who insist that others must be taxed to pay for their constituents’ wants.

We do ourselves no favors by letting envy enter our decision-making. But it is such a natural phenomenon that rooting it out takes conscious effort. It also takes a deliberate approach to find an alternative. What I want shouldn’t be shaped by what you have; it should be decided by my own assessment of what I need and what will leave me satisfied.

How do we get there? It can’t hurt to start early, by teaching kids to look inward rather than outward for satisfaction. But it also can’t hurt for adults to practice asking objective questions, too:

  • Shareholders can ask: Is the CEO with the $766,000 salary creating more value than would 7 subordinates earning salaries of $100,000 each?

  • Elected officials can ask: Are we backing policies that objectively improve the quality of people’s lives, or are we just lazily going along with politics of envy?

  • Ordinary people can ask: Does it make any sense to let envy-peddlers into my social-media streams for free?

Just because envy is a natural phenomenon doesn’t mean we should let it take an unearned place in our lives. We rein in other impulses, too, because it would be harmful to act upon them. Perhaps the new President will be better than the last at sharing his ice cream — but the person in the Oval Office is only one soul. How about the rest of us? Are we envious, or are we objective?