Home Columns The Way I See It: Wealth Addiction: Time for An Intervention

The Way I See It: Wealth Addiction: Time for An Intervention

Robbie Harold

When people struggle with addictions — gambling, alcohol, video games, drugs — friends and family members may stage an “intervention” to force the addicted person to face and deal with his or her behavioral illness. It’s difficult and painful for everyone, and often ends in failure. If recovery succeeds, it’s only when people admit to a problem and to the serious harm their behavior has caused to themselves and others.

There’s one addiction, though, rarely discussed or acknowledged, and it has far more widespread social consequences than all the other addictions combined: the addiction to wealth and power. 

For those at the top of the economic heap, it seems, there’s never enough. As one recent Twitter user put it, “If a monkey hoarded more bananas than it could eat, while most of the other monkeys starved, scientists would study that monkey to find out what the heck was wrong with it. When humans do it, we put them on the cover of Forbes.” 

Writing in The New York Times in 2014, former trader Sam Polk said, “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…no debts…I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.” 

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Polk goes on to describe a destructive cycle of greed, envy, fear, questionable moral choices, and alienation (“I don’t like who you’ve become,” a girlfriend told him), which he ultimately broke only through a painful process of withdrawal.

“…wealth addiction imperils everyone,” Polk says. “Wealth addicts are…responsible for the ever-widening rift that is tearing apart our once great country…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.”

Perhaps the most insidious effect of wealth addiction is its corruption of our politics. To achieve national office these days requires massive infusions of cash; when billionaires and their corporations supply it, they’ve bought, at a minimum, access to the officeholder, and more likely unbridled influence.

The 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which accorded money the status and protections of speech, thereby ratified, perhaps for good, its toxic primacy in U.S. electoral politics. Hence the spate of tax rollbacks in recent decades for the very wealthy, whose 47-percent tax rate in 1980 fell by 2018 to below that of working-class Americans in the lower half of U.S. incomes.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Americans have lost economic ground. Almost half of U.S. workers are paid less than a livable wage (the amount needed to cover basic living costs). 

Thanks to political pressure from corporations, owned and controlled by the wealthy, the U.S. minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 per hour since 2009, its never-great purchasing power steadily eroding. 

Half of the country’s households have less real wealth than they did 20 years ago. Income inequality in the U.S. is the highest in the industrialized world. Fifty-three percent of Americans report themselves one paycheck away from economic ruin.

As economist Robert Reich notes, some income inequality creates incentive for innovation and entrepreneurship. But present levels of inequality stifle any chance of breaking out. 

Rex Nutting notes in a 2019 MarketWatch article that the top 1 percent of U.S. households has “more money than they know what to do with,” with $4.7 trillion parked in cash accounts, enough to give every household in the U.S. about $38,000. Meanwhile, people with good, job-creating business ideas, especially in communities of color, are stymied by lack of access to capital and deteriorating national infrastructure. 

In trying to get wealth addicts to “detox,” it doesn’t help that, for historical, social, and even religious reasons, American culture reveres wealth and ascribes to the wealthy a level of ingenuity, initiative, and talent that in most cases they haven’t achieved: Their ancestors and their capital itself have typically done the work.

In one famous literary intervention for a wealth addict, it took only one night and four ghostly visitations to get Ebenezer Scrooge through rehab and out the other end as a decent and healthy contributor to his community. 

In the real world, it will take huge changes in national policy — reestablishing fair tax rates on great wealth, especially unearned wealth (capital gains and inheritances), raising the national minimum wage to a livable level, rebalancing power between corporations and workers, and investing in long-delayed, job-creating public infrastructure projects — to reduce the harm that wealth addiction has inflicted on our economy and our communities. 

Those needed interventions are on the table at last; it remains to be seen whether their advocates can overcome the opposition of wealth addicts and their political enablers.