There are many stunning moments in the documentary Inside Job that brilliantly demystifies the story behind the global financial crisis that began in 2008. For me, the most powerful was something the CEO of a large bank said to his fellow guests at a party held by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson at the height of the crisis.
"We can't control our greed," the CEO acknowledged, in a rare moment of candor and insight. "You should regulate us more."
Greed is defined as an excessive desire for wealth or goods. At its most rapacious, greed trumps rationality, judgment, perspective, and any concern with the collateral damage it may cause.
As Michael Lewis has written, "It's more than a little nuts for a man who has a billion dollars to devote his life to making another billion, but that's what some of our most exalted citizens do, over and over again."
Greed begins in the neurochemistry of the brain. What fuels our greed is a neurotransmitter called dopamine. The higher the dopamine levels in the brain, the more pleasure we experience. Cocaine, for example, directly increases dopamine levels.
By using magnetic resonance imaging studies, the Harvard researcher Hans Breiter and his colleagues have found that the craving for money activates the same regions of the brain as the craving for cocaine, or sex, or any other instant and intense pleasure.
Dopamine is most reliably activated by novel stimuli -- meaning an experience we haven't had before. We crave recreating that experience. But here's the problem: If we snort the same amount of cocaine the next time, or earn the same sum of money, dopamine levels tend not to increase.
It wasn't money these architects of our demise were after, but rather the satisfaction and security they anticipated money would provide -- as it had after their first windfalls. When the rush began to diminish over time, the solution they landed on was to up the ante -- dramatically.
If the previous amount didn't do it, then maybe twice as much would -- or three times, or ten. It's a viciously seductive cycle: chasing the increasingly elusive high, forever seeking to recreate that initial rush of pleasure and well-being. When it becomes compulsive, we call it addiction.
Money, and the power and admiration it buys, is the drug. Addicts typically use drugs to avoid pain -- most often the pain of feeling insecure and unworthy. Money, like cocaine, gets mistaken for the route to relief.
In the absence of intimate connections to others, or deeply held values, or work devoted to a cause beyond themselves, accumulating wealth becomes the only way these bankers have to try to infuse their lives with meaning, significance and satisfaction.
It's a pattern that helps explain why Angelo Mozilo, then CEO of Countrywide, would allow his employees to write tens of thousands of home mortgages he knew were likely to default, while selling off his shares in the company as fast as he could, before their inevitable crash.
Or why Steven Rattner, the politically connected founder of the Quadrangle Group, who hoped to someday become Treasury Secretary, would trash his career by making kickbacks to public officials so that he could add a few more million dollars to the several hundred million he already had.
Or why top executives at so many banks were willing to turn a blind eye as long as the toxic and doomed financial products they were selling delivered big short-term profits that translated into huge personal bonuses.
The bankers and their paid enablers -- notably regulators and academic economists and equally Democrats and Republicans -- were all feeding at the same till. Greed makes for strange bedfellows. But as with any addiction, more and more eventually led to less and less.
Throughout Inside Job, bankers justify their greedy, dishonest, and destructive behaviors the same way all addicts do: by hemming and hawing, rationalizing and minimizing, denying and dissembling.
A cocaine addict plainly does damage to himself and to those closest to him. What's so frightening about those with an addiction to money (and skill at accumulating it) is that the cost can be so great to so many.
Few of us are immune to money's powerful seduction, but most of never get the opportunity to accumulate huge amounts of it. Count us fortunate. It would be wonderful to believe that those most responsible for the current financial crisis learned sobering lessons from the worldwide havoc and suffering they helped to prompt.
Don't hold your breath -- especially so long as we continue to revere our citizens based on their net worth, even as they've knocked down ours.
"We can't control our greed," the bank CEO at Hank Paulson's party tells the assembled guests. "Protect me from my own most primitive impulses," he was essentially saying. "And protect yourselves, too."
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