The recent fracas surrounding the disparaging remarks of Mitt Romney about half the citizens of his country is just another chapter in the ongoing harping on his extreme wealth. It’s not news that a mega-wealthy politician leads a sheltered life immune from contact with people who work for their living (except of course during voting season). That is the chief perk of being rich. Although I am not a supporter of Mr. Romney, I find the attacks on him both disingenuous and misdirected.
In a materialistic society like ours it strikes me as hypocritical to lambaste a man merely for being obscenely rich and out of touch. It is safe to assume that each and every one of his critics would gladly switch bank accounts with Mr. Romney, and undoubtedly become just as detached from real life as he seems to be. In America avarice has never been a deadly sin. Quite the contrary. Mega-wealth is upheld by most people as proof of one’s smarts, luck, and having pleased God. Isn’t the private jet, the numerous posh residences around the world the dream that motivates parents to dress up their 4-year old in obscenely provocative outfits for a contest that could launch her on a path to stardom and becoming the next Béyonce?
The rage against the 1% misses a crucial point. There is a fundamental difference between being wealthy as a just reward for one’s accomplishments or good fortune and the kind of rapacious accumulation of wealth fueled by unbridled greed that is now practiced by the mega-rich. This is an obsessive behavior that knows neither self-restraint nor financial limits and as such is neither a social nor a moral issue but a health issue, a mental disorder requiring medical or psychiatric intervention.
Let me illustrate my point with a culinary analogy. I love gourmet food and fine wines. Sometimes, I indulge and overdo it but know instinctively when I have crossed the line. And should I not notice, I have no doubt that those around me will point it out to me. We have no laws against overeating but we all know that not knowing when enough is enough is not OK. It is less the quantity consumed that turns us off but the perception that the eater is out of control.
Today we all accept that such a transgression is an illness. An obese person or an alcoholic are no longer targets for derision or loathing. We recognize that an eating disorder, just like kleptomania, is something that the perpetrator is powerless to change on his or her own, and therefore needs to first recognize that he is sick, and then seek help.
A person who already has a private jet who then goes out and buys three more (ostensibly so as not to fall behind other CEOs) is likewise not a criminal to be heckled by mobs but a person suffering from a medical condition, whether aware of it or not. The criticism of a mega-rich person running for office therefore should not center on the unfairness of being so much richer than the people whose votes he seeks, but rather on the fact that he exhibits an obsessive behavior when it comes to accumulating excessive wealth. Perhaps Mr. Romney and his exclusive set could start a Dollarholic Anonymous 12-step program, or some other form of therapy.
Last winter I heard about a wealthy woman living in a 20 million dollar home in Montecito California, with a 2,600 square foot bedroom, who decided that she needed a second shoe closet because the one next door to her bedroom (the size of a studio apartment) was too full. This is not luxury. This is gorging on money. Anyone envying or aspiring to such wealth is like someone envying a Bulimic who gorges herself on three tubs of ice cream at one sitting and then throws it all up. If this is enviable to you, you too need to see a shrink.
The same principle is at play in both people suffering from an eating disorder and those suffering from an acquisition disorder. Neither the food nor the newly added billion dollars have much intrinsic value. The behavior in both cases is compulsive. The person acquiring companies is like the person stuffing themselves and then throwing up. A mega-billionaire may disgorge huge gobs of money in the form of charities after an acquisition binge, but there is little doubt that the next morning he will back binging again.