Addicted to Wealth — A National Trait?

We're rediscovering wealth addiction — but is it bred into our characters?

Posted Feb 08, 2014

Lately, we've been discovering addiction to wealth. Or, I should say, rediscovering.

It began with Sam Polk's op-ed in the New York Times, "For the Love of Money."

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.

Polk, as they say, knew of what he spoke: he was "a daily drinker (hey!) and pot smoker and a regular user of cocaine, Ritalin and ecstasy," and had been suspended from Columbia for burglary and arrested twice.  The only thing important to him was his girlfriend. "But even though I was in love with her, when I got drunk I’d sometimes end up with other women."

I know what you're thinking: a perfect candidate for Wall Street! Kidding! He actually gave up drugs and alcohol before going to Wall Street (like most people do when something more important tips the scales for them).  But there he became enmeshed in making money in a way that consumed his life.  However, he walked away from that too.

Here is the reason that he left that scene.

But in the end, it was actually my absurdly wealthy bosses who helped me see the limitations of unlimited wealth. I was in a meeting with one of them, and a few other traders, and they were talking about the new hedge-fund regulations. Most everyone on Wall Street thought they were a bad idea. “But isn’t it better for the system as a whole?” I asked. The room went quiet, and my boss shot me a withering look.

Uh-oh, a banker with a heart!

And, so, Polk left for a more satisfying life.

And, yes, he went through withdrawal:

The first year was really hard. I went through what I can only describe as withdrawal — waking up at nights panicked about running out of money, scouring the headlines to see which of my old co-workers had gotten promoted. Over time it got easier — I started to realize that I had enough money, and if I needed to make more, I could. But my wealth addiction still hasn’t gone completely away. Sometimes I still buy lottery tickets.

Uh-oh, relapse! No, Polk is not crazy enough to think he should abstain from all money-seeking activity. (How would he do that, anyhow?)

Polk sees his addiction as a disease of the one percent: "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."

Polk rightly traces wealth addiction to Philip Slater's 1980 book with that title.  But Slater didn't believe this addiction was characteristic only of the wealthy. Slater referred to the rest as "closet addicts," by which he meant that they secretly desired to have all the money, possessions, and perks of the wealthy like, well, Polk: "At 25, I could go to any restaurant in Manhattan — Per Se, Le Bernardin." (Whatever they are.)

In fact, what the Republican Party constantly harkens back to is the faint -- and growing fainter -- hope all Americans harbor that THEY can strike it rich, and go to Le Bernardin.

I've got a secret to reveal. Slater wasn't really the first to describe Americans' wealth addiction.  That would be Alexis de Tocqueville, who discovered everything about American first when he toured here in 1831. Virtually the first thing he and his traveling companion Gustave de Beaumont noticed was Americans' preoccupation with money and wealth. 

According to Beaumont, "The Americans are a nation of merchants, devoured by a hunger for wealth that brings many far from honorable passions along with it, such as greed, fraud, and bad faith. They seem to have one single thought here and one single goal, which is to make their fortune." And, then, Tocqueville himself: "The more deeply one goes into the American national character, the more one sees that they value everything on earth in response to this sole question. How much money will it bring in?" (Think of my favorite TV program, "Antiques Roadshow," where you only know the value of something when the expert says how much cash it will fetch.)

So which is wealth addiction, an individual trait or Americans' national character? Kiran Moodley interviewed me to end his segment about addiction to wealth for CNBC:

Stanton Peele, a psychotherapist who recently published a book about curing addiction with Ilse Thompson called "Recover!", said via email that, "As a social commentary, wealth addiction describes a society where all meaning and social status are derived from the accumulation of wealth.

"Witness the story of Mike Tyson, who spent many millions on drugs, true, but really most of his wealth was squandered on jewelry, cars, houses," Peele said.

"The easiest description for both individuals like Tyson, and for a society where people like him reign, is an emptiness and absence of sustaining values, community, and life meaning for which wealth, money, and possessions are sought as glittering, attractive, addictive substitutes."

I'm indebted for this post to my Vancouver support group, Justin Ritchie, Mary Etey, and Bruce Alexander.

Stanton Peele's new book (with Ilse Thompson), is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program. Follow his guided self-cure program at

Follow Stanton on Twitter and Facebook

This post is dedicated to Justin Ritchie, Mary Etey, and Bruce Alexander -- my Vancouver power base.