“Money is America’s most powerful drug. Here’s how it weakens us and how we can free ourselves.”
So reads the dust jacket of my signed copy of “Wealth Addiction.” The 1983 book issociologist Philip Slater’s take on our growing, crippling obsession with wealth and money. In late 2002 I found multiple copies of the audio version of the book on sale at a Half-Price Books store and flew to California to interview him.
Back then I was thinking that millions of people had just lost a lot of wealth. They could use some therapy about it. And if wealth addiction was a problem in 1983, it was much more of a problem in 2002.
It is even more of a problem today. Our money addiction problem has only gotten worse as the concentration of wealth has increased and we focus more and more attention on extreme wealth. Is the concentration of wealth a problem? Yes. But we won’t solve it by obsessing over how much Gates, Buffett and the other top names on the Forbes list have.
Sadly, both the book and its audiotape version were out of print back in 2002. Worse, there was some uncertainty about who owned the copyright, so my efforts to produce a re-release of the audiotape version were fruitless.
But that was then. If you visit Slater’s website today you can download a free PDF copy of the book. On the website, he cautions readers that the amounts and prices used in the original 1983 text now look silly. “In those days,” he notes, “the word ‘millionaire’ used to mean an extremely rich person. Today we have to use ‘billionaire’ to convey the same meaning.”
I heartily recommend reading this book. Like addictions to drugs or alcohol, it’s easy to dismiss wealth addiction as a problem. “Hey, everyone needs money. We’ve got to have it. It gets us through the day.”
Reasonable use is not addiction, just as a glass of wine with dinner is not alcoholism. We are addicts when we feel lost and incomplete without something, whether it is heroin, alcohol, sex or money.
Wealth addiction, Slater points out, takes quite a few forms. You can test yourself with these simple questions.
- Are you a money addict? Do you accumulate it without immediate plans to use it?
- Are you a possession addict? Are you obsessed with displaying your wealth through possessions?
- Are you a power addict? Do you use your money to gain power or advantage?
- Are you a fame addict? Do you crave recognition and use your money to get it?
- Are you a spending addict? Can you not stop spending, even when it isn’t necessary to spend?
Addiction doesn’t have to be extreme to affect how you think and live. It can be as simple as an excessive interest in a particular material possession. Some men, for instance, obsess over a particular car, whether it is a Shelby Mustang, a Porsche Carrera or an Aston Martin. For me it has always been houses, particularly having a second home. (Thankfully, I have overcome that!)
One of the hallmarks of wealth addiction is very simple: more possessions, but less use. We become so interested in possession of the thing that we lose the experience it provides. This can be as vast as owning homes all around the world, as some of the very rich do, as simple as Bernie Madoff's shoe collection, or as obsessive as a collection of rare watches. Whatever it is, the wealth addict confuses possession with experience.
Is there a First Step in overcoming wealth addiction?
Yes. Ignore the never-ending attention to wealth in our culture. This means not pondering the wealth of the top 1 percent. It means avoiding the seductive material excess of TV programs like Royal Pains or Revenge, not to mention avoiding the banality of the Kardashians and related pop phenomena.
Instead, we can focus on the abundance most of us already have. For as many as 80 percent of all Americans what we already have is a life of material comfort and ease that is beyond anything dreamed of a century ago; an abundance of possessions even at modest income levels; and an ease of communication and entertainment. All of this gives most of us a capacity to say “enough,” a capacity that surpasses anything in previous world history.