Sam Polk was a young man of modest means who wanted to make a lot of money. He got into Columbia University and set his sight on Wall Street. Along the way he developed, by his own admission, a dependence on alcohol and drugs, then got clean and sober. But when he got to Wall Street, as he explains in a New York Times op-ed today, he fell prey to what he now regards as another addiction:
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 to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.He went from a $40,000 first-year bonus to a million-plus annual salary in a few years, and it was never enough:
... I was nagged by envy. On a trading desk everyone sits together, from interns to managing directors. When the guy next to you makes $10 million, $1 million or $2 million doesn't look so sweet.He sees wealth addiction as widespread, and toxic:
... I was a giant fireball of greed.
... I wanted a billion dollars.
Like alcoholics driving drunk, wealth addiction imperils everyone. Wealth addicts are, more than anybody, specifically responsible for the ever widening rift that is tearing apart our once great country. Wealth addicts are responsible 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.Polk alludes to the real problem here, but I don't think he ever quite nails it. The problem isn't the existence of wealth addiction. We're always going to have wealth addicts, just as we're always going to have alcoholics and drug addicts.
The problem is that, in this case, we're letting the addicts decide how society deals with their addiction.
In a way, this is what we do with guns in America, at least at the national level and in the red states: we let the junkies control who can obtain the stuff, how freely it's sold, and how few restraints we can put on its exchange, by means of their unchallenged access to elected officials. With great wealth, especially over the past thirty-plus years, we've allowed the the wealthiest and greediest -- whose access to public officials is even greater than that of the gun lobbyists -- to talk us into curtailing the tax and regulatory policies that served as checks on their access to the stuff, and have thus permitted them to do massive harm to society as a result of their abuse. In a way, with wealth we have a sort of narco-state, where the cartel leaders intimidate the authorities into avoiding crackdowns on the trade. The only difference is that, in the case of wealth, it's actually empowering to be high on your own supply.
Wealth addicts will always be with us. Their addiction has probably always been a significant driver of our economy. But in the past we constrained their access to their drug of choice quite a bit more, and we also put more restrictions on what they could do while high. But they're writing the drug laws now.