1980 WealthAddiction

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Subject Headings: Wealth Addiction.


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Many people have asked me to make Wealth Addiction available to the public, since the book has long been out of print. Though praised by critics its publication was ill-timed, coming as it did at the beginning of the Reagan era. Since then the incomes of a small minority have skyrocketed, while those of the vast majority have barely kept up with inflation — usually by a couple producing what once was earned by one. So the book seems even more relevant now than it was then. Unfortunately, inflation has made the actual figures used in the book ridiculous. In the 70s you could rent a four-room apartment in Cambridge a block from Harvard, or a three bedroom house in Santa Cruz, CA — with deck and ocean view a half-block from the water — for under $400 a month. In those days the word 'millionaire' used to mean an extremely rich person. Today we have to use 'billionaire' to convey the same meaning. And while there are many billionaires today, when the book was written the eight cited were pretty much it in the United States. To make the amounts meaningful in today's world, you should multiply every figure by ten. Thus, on page 25, for example, you would use the figures $10,000,000 in assets and 500,000 a year income. When it comes to inequality, the change is even greater. On page 132, for example, I used italics to express what seemed, at that time, outrageous inequality — with the wealthiest 1% of the population owning eight times what the poorer 50% owned. But today we regard the 70s as a time of relative equality compared to the present, since almost all gains in wealth in the intervening years have gone to heavy addicts. These are things to keep in mind when reading Wealth Addiction.


People worry a lot about money these days. In a way this is peculiar, since the money is worth less than ever before. We try harder and harder to make more and more money, which buys less and less. A visitor from outer space might expect that if money were decreasing in value we’d stop being so interested in it. Why worry about something that’s on its way to becoming worthless?


2. The Money on Your Back


As I thought about this I began to feel that all our contradictory and confusing ideas about wealth were missing something important. The capitalist view, for example — still widely accepted among the general public — is that wealth is nature’s reward for special cleverness, industry, or talent. Rich men are widely assumed to have some kind of ability or competence, despite the fact that in most cases their wealth was inherited.

The Marxist view sees wealth largely in social terms. It stresses the corrupting influence of money, but it pays little attention to the fact that some people a re more susceptible to this infection than others. The Marxist theory of wealth addiction is a lot like the American theory of drug addiction, which would have us believe that if the evil pusher can just manage to sneak a little heroin into any unsuspecting victim he can count on adding a lifelong addict to his string of customers.

The early days of psychoanalysis saw some promising beginnings toward a psychology of money.


Money is certainly an addiction, and one to which few of us are altogether immune. But saying this — viewing the source of an addiction as a universal menace from which no one is safe — never seems to help. Facing the fact that some people are more prone to addiction than others may lull a few people into a false sense of security, but it seems to be a necessary step toward getting a handle on what it is inside us that responds to the bait. If a man thinks that cigarette addiction will be upon him when he smokes his first butt, he need never take a look at himself from the moment that threshold has been crossed. Self-understanding often begins, paradoxically, with looking smugly and analytically at the “poor unfortunate” in whom the addictive pattern is writ so large that we can see it clearly. Once the pattern has been dramatized in this way we can begin to detect it within ourselves.

I doubt that we Americans can come to terms with our own money neuroses without understanding the more florid pathology of the very rich, for it is our envy and admiration of the rich that supports their habit and keeps us hooked ourselves. American ideas about wealth are virtually unchanged since 1900, although intellectuals have advanced and countered such a variety of different arguments on the topic that they have now come full circle and imagine themselves to have disposed of the issue.

A recent man-in-the-street interview asked the passersby if they resented people with great wealth. All of them answered in the negative, arguing either that the wealthy had earned their wealth or that it was stupid to be resentful of a club one hoped one day to enter. If I am to enjoy the fantasy of being rich myself, in other words, I need to be convinced that the rich are somehow deserving.


In saying this I don’t mean to be cynical. Great fortunes can almost never be acquired ethically for a very simple reason: money is an instrument of trade and in an ethical trade everyone would come out at the end relatively equal. If, then, at the end of a lifetime of exchange, one man comes out rich and the other poor, the poor man has been cheated and the rich man is a cheat. This is made explicit in the first rule of success in business: “buy cheap and sell dear,” or, in other words, “cheat those with whom you deal.” If our entire economic system is based on the exhortation to cheat, we can hardly be surprised or indignant to find that the biggest rewards go to those who are the biggest cheaters. The real question we need to ask ourselves is this: are these the people we want to reward?

Every society tries in some way to encourage those people whose skills or arts or personality traits are most valuable to it. We reward greed and sharp dealing and punish generosity and modesty. Perhaps this is what we want, but we ought to be a little more conscious of what we’re doing and what price we’re paying. A man trades with us all his life and ends up rich. Has he given us anything in exchange? In most cases the answer is no. People get rich because they feel deprived and they d on ’t ever want to give anything in return. If they wanted to give something in re tu rn, they obviously wouldn’t be rich, since people get rich by buying cheap and selling dear — in other words, by taking much more than they give back.

Apologists for the rich have come up with many ingenious ways of avoiding this simple tru th . They point to the philanthropic activities of the rich, the advantages of concentrating wealth in one spot, and the need to reward those who take special risks with their money. But to steal five h u n d red million and give back one is no t what is meant by the word “charity.” Furthermore, as we’ll see when we examine the lives of the very wealthy in Chapte r 4, many of the biggest moneymakers have given little or n o thing to charitable causes.

If we d id n ’t devote so much of o u r energy as a nation to making a few people very rich, we wouldn’t need their d on a tions. We funnel energy (and money) away from things we need so we can enrich a few (hoping, of course, that we’ll be


Not all the newly rich get something for nothing. Every once in a while a fortune may be built on a contribution of some kind. An artist or enterta in e r, for example, provides pleasure to people in re tu rn for the money he or she earns. An invention may prove popular. But it usually takes an organization o f some kind to make someone a millionaire. An invention, for example, must be manufactured, p rom oted, distributed. Industrial empires d on ’t ju s t emerge, and they a re n ’t built by a single hand. Every millionaire has a coterie of loyal p artners and devoted followers, for many different skills are needed.

Yet of all these diverse and vital talents only on e or two individuals reap the monetary rewards. It seems to be a case o f “to each according to his need .” Some participants in a successful enterprise are content with a comfortable salary and the satisfaction of doing their jobs well and being recognized for it. Others are more needy, more insecure. They feel compelled to take more than their share because their addiction is always competitive: what they have is not satisfying if others have it, too. Taking seems to be gratifying for them only if it involves taking away from others.

This is the only way we can make sense of the frequency with which wealthy people hoard or overconsume d uring a sh o rtage. When things are scarce, in other words (as in wartime), many rich people not only take more than their share, as they do at all times, but also take more than usual. In the energy crisis of 1973-74, for example, wealthy people purchased large, expensive, fuel-devouring cars by the thousands, apparently just to show that they could afford them. Things have value for true wealth addicts only in proportion to how much other people want or need them.

In my city there is a yacht harbor with hundreds of expensive boats. On the finest day of the year far less than a quarter are in use and for most of the year all but a handful sit idle, to be used once a month or even once a year. Most of them seem to be there, behind the locked fence, as a symbol to be admired and envied. They exist, in other words, to create wealth addiction in others. If so, then all wealth addicts are pushers by definition, because wealth is the only form of addiction in which the addict gets high off other people's withdrawal symptoms.

Many people dream of owning their own boat and more are doing it every day, but as an investment it ranks a little below playing the slot machines. To own and moor a boat in a populated area costs so much that one would have to use it at least three times a week every week of the year to make it cheaper than renting one by the day. If all these boats were made available for rental to the public the rental rates would be driven down and usage would greatly increase, but even then many of the boats would probably lie idle. Certainly there would be enough boats for those who could afford it to sail by the day as often as they wanted or were able. The real function of owning such a boat seems to be to prevent other people from enjoying it.




 AuthorvolumeDate ValuetitletypejournaltitleUrldoinoteyear
1980 WealthAddictionPhilip E. Slater (1927-2013)Wealth Addiction05254770471980