Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Wealth-aholics Anonymous? (Nah, The Addicts Never Hit Bottom)

Posted by on Tue, Jan 21, 2014 at 10:30 AM

According to a recovering “wealth addict” in a column in the Sunday NY Times — he's a young man who at 25 was making a few million a year (but it wasn’t nearly enough) — the mania to accumulate more and more wealth beyond what anyone could possibly need or spend is a disease the very rich fall prey to. They might suffer some psychological trauma, poor babies, but it’s everyone else who pays, literally, for their drug of choice.

The growing accumulation of wealth in a few hands bends economic and political power in the direction of the rich, as the column makes clear. Income inequality is about concentration of wealth in the hands of a few people and the growing number of others living at or near the poverty level, but it also poses a serious threat to the health of our democracy.

Back to the NY Times column in a minute. First, some stats.

Four hundred billionaires have a net worth equal to that of the country’s 14 million-plus African Americans. So writes Bob Lord on my old home at Blog for Arizona in a chillling Martin Luther King Day note.

The net worth of just 400 billionaires, a group that could fit into a high school gym, is on par with the collective wealth of our more than 14 million African- American households. Both groups possess some $2 trillion, about three percent of our national net worth of $77 trillion.

Today’s Star has a McClatchy article with a similar statistic, this time on a global scale.

The world’s richest 85 people control the same amount of wealth as half the world’s population, according to a report issued Monday by the British-based anti-poverty charity Oxfam.

Who benefited most from the 2008 housing bust and worldwide financial downturn according to the article? No surprise here.

The report also said that while the recent financial crisis was an enormous burden on the world’s poor, it ended up being a huge benefit to the rich elite. The very wealthiest people on Earth collected 95 percent of the post-crisis growth, the report said.

The growth in income inequality is a worldwide phenomenon, but “the trend is more pronounced in the United States than in other nations.”

Back to the NY Times “wealth addiction” column. The writer described his ascent on the hedge fund ladder and his descent into a downward spiral of greed, craving more and more money.

Now, working elbow to elbow with billionaires, I was a giant fireball of greed. . . . I wanted a billion dollars. It’s staggering to think that in the course of five years, I’d gone from being thrilled at my first bonus — $40,000 — to being disappointed when, my second year at the hedge fund, I was paid “only” $1.5 million.

In his college days, he was a serious drinker and drug user. He kicked those habits, but he understood the nature of addiction, so he recognized what he saw around him for what it was.

I noticed the vitriol that traders directed at the government for limiting bonuses after the crash. I heard the fury in their voices at the mention of higher taxes. These traders despised anything or anyone that threatened their bonuses. Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his junk? He’ll do anything — walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma — to get a fix. Wall Street was like that. In the months before bonuses were handed out, the trading floor started to feel like a neighborhood in “The Wire” when the heroin runs out.

Ever wonder why ridiculously wealthy people work so hard against tax increases and government regulations even though they have enough money to last a dozen generations? This is a big part of the answer.

The current conservative defense against the growing Democratic push to curb income inequality is to say it doesn’t matter how much money the top one percent has. It’s all about helping the Job Creators create Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, and about getting all those lazy bastards at the low end of the economic spectrum off their asses and working instead of living off the government dole. They're wrong. The accumulation of wealth at the top echelons creates huge economic and political distortions which, unchecked, grow in a self-perpetuating spiral.

About the "wealth addict" who wrote the column. He left the hedge fund and experienced what he describes as withdrawal. But he's happy with his decision.

In the three years since I left, I’ve married, spoken in jails and juvenile detention centers about getting sober, taught a writing class to girls in the foster system, and started a nonprofit called Groceryships to help poor families struggling with obesity and food addiction. I am much happier. I feel as if I’m making a real contribution.

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