THE BLOG
01/30/2008 01:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's the Pathology, Stupid

As recession looms, this might be a useful time to examine the psychopathology on which our economic system rests. We view becoming a billionaire, for example, as the pinnacle of success. But let's face it, anyone who needs a billion dollars to maintain his self-esteem is one sick puppy.

Pathology is a matter of degree. If a man enjoys violent sports we don't consider him neurotic. If he has violent impulses that cannot be discharged in a healthy way, however -- impulses that are contained, but disturb him -- we send him to a therapist. And if he cannot contain those impulses, so he is a danger to others -- if he feels compelled to get into barroom brawls, for example, or abuse his wife -- we expect him to put in some jail time if he doesn't get psychotherapy.

Similarly, if someone lives in the expensive house he buys, makes use of all the rooms in it, wears the expensive clothes he buys, sails around the world in his yacht, no one would consider him neurotic. It may take more money to make him happy than it does the average person, but there's no more reason to call this pathology than there is to apply the term to someone who's happy living in a tent in the woods. Using money to buy pleasure, while often unsuccessful, is a legitimate strategy.

Where this veers into pathology is when the money and the possessions are not consumed, but exist only to bolster the ego, to assert one's self-worth, or to attempt to compensate for some deep sense of deprivation. When H. L. Hunt was the richest man in the world, for example, a friend said of him that "he always felt poor in his own mind," and similar sentiments have been expressed by other famous billionaires. To own houses that are rarely occupied, yachts that never leave harbor, luxury cars that are never driven -- these are signs of deep pathology and should be recognized as such. When money is spent only to acquire status symbols, or to achieve power over others, we're in a situation similar to the man who cannot contain his violent impulses: the pathology is having a deleterious effect on others.

For pathological greed is not a private matter. When billionaires avoid taxes, the burden falls on high school teachers and steelworkers, while our children's schools are underfunded and health care is out of reach for millions of Americans. When Wal-Mart pays its employees so little that they qualify for public assistance, American taxpayers pick up the tab. While the pathologically greedy have been getting their fixes, non-neurotic Americans are working harder than ever and making less money than they did 30 years ago. People who are addicted to money typically feel no satisfaction in it unless they know they're forcing someone else to feel as deprived as they themselves feel.

Hoarding money, like hoarding power, or hoarding bottles of liquor in hiding places around the house, is a sign of dysphoria -- an inability to achieve contentment or satisfaction. Nothing is enough. Even too much isn't enough.

Like those addicted to tobacco or heroin, the money addict has a hole in his ego. No matter how hard he tries to pump it up, his ego keeps leaking, and he has to have more money, more status, more power, more fame.

Americans tend to act as enablers to money addicts. Most Americans believe that becoming a billionaire is an index of achievement rather than a symptom of pathology, and tend to be envious of, rather than disgusted by, the most grotesque and pathetic excesses of the pathologically needy.

Yet the idea that bottomless greed is a kind of pathology is so threatening to our individualistic ideology that it can never be dealt with seriously. People typically fend it off with humor, "I wish I had Rockefeller's neurosis!" or, "If only I could get addicted like that!" They make fun of the idea that money can't buy happiness, and feel that they themselves would be exceptions to the rule.

Money can, of course, buy freedom from some kinds of unhappiness, but that's as far as it goes, by definition. Happiness, after all, is feeling things are great just as they are at this moment. Happiness, in other words, is not wanting. Yet our entire economic and social system is founded on people wanting things -- on our population being discontented, envious, unhappy. If Americans were happy and contented, our entire economy would collapse. Our economy depends on finding ourselves wanting.

Joy can't be purchased. It can't be acquired. It can't be achieved. You either experience it or you don't. Most Americans don't even know what it is. They think the kind of elation you feel when you win a game, or a contest, or come into some money, is joy. But joy isn't something that's caused. Joy is something you wake up with. And not just in the morning.

Americans need to wake up and recognize a disease for what it is.