J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Is “Wealth Addiction” an Illness?

Crazy money.

Crazy money.

Sam Polk’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times chronicles his journey from greedy derivatives trader to nonprofit founder. It brings the concept of “wealth addiction” into the mainstream.

Is “wealth addiction” really an illness? Left untreated, the accumulation of wealth generally doesn’t lead to ruined life, or death. But Polk claims that this malady tears apart the social fabric, and hurts us collectively. Polk writes: “Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between the rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class.”

I think it’s valuable to consider the psychology of the ultrarich. What drives their behavior? Maybe it’s important to call out extreme asset accumulation for what it is: pathological fear-based hoarding, a scarcity mindset in the midst of abundance.

But even more important is to examine the system that enables such behavior. How do the ultrarich accumulate so much wealth, and hang on to it? Corporatism enables such behavior, with four simple methods:

  • a corporate charter that criminalizes putting any priority ahead of shareholder profit
  • an upper income tax rate of less than 40% (the upper rate averaged around 75% between 1932 and 1981)
  • corporate lobbyists influencing lawmakers to loosen regulation on Wall St.
  • media corporations that glorify extreme wealth

We aren’t going to address extreme income inequality by rehabilitating Wall Street traders one-by-one (or by waiting for them to become moderately enlightened and drop out of the rat race). We’re going to fix radical income inequality with a return to historical, more sensible progressive taxation, intelligent reform of the corporate charter (California’s “Flexible Purpose” and “Benefit” corporate structures are a good start), restricting corporate access to lawmakers, and support for independent media.

Four causes, four solutions. Questions? Difference of opinion? Please comment below.

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12 Comments

  1. maria

    Your article reminds me of the documentary “Inequality for All”. I recommended to anyone that wants to know where we really are economically and socially: Just as bad as 100 years a go (or worst) and
    why.

  2. altamisal

    I think this is apropos, from a recent blog post I wrote, “Is Money Necessary?” As Sam Polk wrote in his article, if we feel we have “enough,” we are not wealth-addicted.

    http://writtens-jen.blogspot.com/2013/10/is-money-necessary.html

    We may need to redefine wealth or what it means to be rich. Is it about winning millions in the lottery, or is it about having “enough”? I think having enough is about being able to follow our chosen path, without wasting energy in worry — whether it’s worry about taking care of our basic needs, or on the other hand, about dealing with huge amounts of money. Of course, we are all different, and some, like Mark Boyle, will feel abundant with much less or no money. He said that his first year of living cash-free was “the greatest experience of my life.” He is following his natural bent, doing his life’s work. Even without money, he is wealthy in his own way. Others may need a lot of money and material possessions to feel on track and fulfill their purpose. The important thing is to be happy with our lives, comfortable with ourselves and with what we have, while staying open to our dreams, and following our heart.

  3. altamisal

    Yes, the system enables wealth addiction, but we are the system. The difference between those compulsive wealth accumulators and the rest of us is only a matter of degree. Even relatively enlightened people still equate money with security. Our separatist, alienated culture is the problem. I’m not saying we should do away with money. I think a basic guaranteed income is a step in the right direction.

    • Separatist, alienated… Yes to a large extent it is. But beams of light break through. One beam of light is Couchsurfing.org for me, at least

  4. altamisal

    Yes, there are beams of light, couchsurfing.org is good. And there’s this, founded by Mark Boyle, the “moneyless man” I mentioned in my blog post:
    http://old.justfortheloveofit.org

  5. Personally, I’m interested in the rhetoric of “addiction”, e.g. something medicalized or therapatized in order to refer to something that “in the old days” may just be referred to as good ol’ fashioned greed. I’m wondering whether because moral relativism took the wind out of making any sort of moral claims, people are turning to the vaguely scientific-sounding term “addiction” to critique something that has enormous social costs?

    While I’m at it, I wanted to add a note that income inequality isn’t just something that bugs us. There’s a lot of good research showing that income inequality makes almost anything you care about in a country worse. Murder rates, literacy rates, teen pregnancy rates, mental health rates, etc. The Spirit Level is a great book and this is a short summary of it (there’s also a TED talk somewhere):

    • I completely agree re: income inequality being bad on a number of levels. The Wilkinson TED talk is a good one, and changed my thinking on this issue:
      http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_wilkinson.html

      Is “wealth addiction” just greed? Sure … but there is a psychological basis to greed: fear, inadequacy, a deep desire for predictability, control, and security, etc. So there may be something to the therapeutic approach.

      But I think the larger issue needs to be addressed on the level of the state. A return to reasonably progressive tax rates would be a start. (What we have now, capping out at less than 40%, with no distinction between 400K and 4M annual income, might be called “faux progressive”.)

    • Cool! I knew there was a link between status and some mental illness. Didn’t know about that research.

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