Richer than Croesus

Croesus

I don’t tend to read the business pages of newspapers very much, but last weekend, an article in the NYTimes caught my eye. With the headline of “For the Love of Money,” it began with:

In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.

This is more than merely greed, but surely a case of what greed can become. Myth and story abound with tales of men (almost always men) who become so enamored of money that their lives slip by unnoticed or they suffer worse fates. Midas was said to have died of starvation because everything he touched turn to gold, rendering it inedible. Scrooge was not so much known as a greedy man, but rather as a miser. Somehow, however, greed drove him to hold on to his money so tightly, that he lost sight of the humanity surrounding him. Both showed signs of addiction.

Addiction is a special kind of obsessive action with two kinds of outcomes. First, the addict never can be satisfied. Second, over time the addiction produces some sort of pathological unintended consequences. For Midas, it was death; for Scrooge, it was the loss of his soul. For Sam Polk, the author of the article, it was, like Scrooge, a loss of his self. He writes

As the world crumbled, I profited. I’d seen the crash coming, but instead of trying to help the people it would hurt the most — people who didn’t have a million dollars in the bank — I’d made money off it. I don’t like who you’ve become, my girlfriend had said years earlier. She was right then, and she was still right. Only now, I didn’t like who I’d become either.

Polk was lucky, he recognized what was happening to him, and set out to “cure” himself with the help of many intervenors. Ironically, he considers himself fortunate that his early experience with drugs and alcohol helped wake him up and move him to address his addiction to money.

I can believe that addiction to drugs and alcohol may be due partly to genetic and partly to cultural factors, but I can’t see that money addiction is anything but cultural, reflecting present values. Polk adds this comment about wealth addiction.

Wealth addiction was described by the late sociologist and playwright Philip Slater in a 1980 book, but addiction researchers have paid the concept little attention. Like alcoholics driving drunk, wealth addiction imperils everyone. Wealth addicts are, more than anybody, specifically responsible for the ever widening rift that is tearing apart our once great country. Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between the rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class. Only a wealth addict would feel justified in receiving $14 million in compensation — including an $8.5 million bonus — as the McDonald’s C.E.O., Don Thompson, did in 2012, while his company then published a brochure for its work force on how to survive on their low wages. Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary.

Addictions of any kind are antithetical to flourishing because the authenticity of care is necessarily missing. Addiction is constituted by loss of control; the addict is taken over by him or herself, but not in a mindful or responsible way. Wealth addiction seems even more insidious than, say, consumption addiction because there is no limit to the amount of money theoretically possible to acquire. There is some practical limit to the quantity of goods one can buy, although that limit is being stretched by the volume of the mega-mansions many wealth addicts live in. After the garage is filled with the overflow and a few self-storage units are also crammed full, consumption addiction may become somewhat self-limiting, but no such limits exist for the additive acquisition of money.

We can condemn the degree of inequality in America today and point out that as it grows we move further away from the possibility of flourishing. We can even rail about the greed that drives the widening gap and call for all sorts of policy measures to reduce the gap. But these are only Band-Aids. The cultural values that create wealth addiction are deep seated and must change before the cultural norms will follow. Economists and psychologists will have to stop telling us and those that design our institutional that we are insatiably needy at our core. If there is a better formula for creating addiction to wealth or to the goods most of us are limited to acquire, I can’t imagine it. If we are, in fact, such needy, greedy creatures, we will need to stop talking about flourishing or “sustainability,” the word many use, as something possible. The simplest of algebra or systems dynamics archetypes would show, in this case, such an outcome is impossible.

(Image: Head of Croesus on a vase in the Louvre)

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