Wealth Addicts Anonymous? It misses the point

January 20, 2014

By Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Sam Polk has seen the light. Once a derivatives trader who measured his income in millions of dollars, he quit for a new life. Now he reckons his extravagantly rewarded former colleagues should realise that they have a problem – an addiction to wealth. Writing in the New York Times, he suggests others join him to “form a group and confront our addiction together.”

Many may scoff. For the average employee, it may be hard to work up sympathy for people who feel that multi-million-dollar packages are insultingly low, or who feel compelled to work for more money because the six-bedroom penthouse just isn’t enough. But Polk is on to something. For a certain type of person, vast sums of money may well work like booze on an alcoholic.

There will be extraordinary financial fortunes made as long as there are gullible and greedy clients. Jordan Belfort – the criminal whose flamboyant lifestyle and dishonest sales techniques are studied in the film “The Wolf of Wall Street” – has many professional heirs.

But while some sort of “Wealth Addicts Anonymous” is a good idea, the meetings won’t get anywhere unless the participants really understand what’s wrong with wanting more money. A good start would be to hold them among truly poor people – say in the slums of a developing world mega-city. Each session should then begin with a firm lecture about something that Polk only mentions in passing in his article – greed. Moralists have good reasons to classify greed – the unbounded desire for more – as a sin. It distorts judgment and divides society.

Still, cures for this condition require much more than Polk’s idea of self-awareness leading to self-restraint. Financial rewards, bonuses particularly, should not defy common sense. Ludicrously high pay rates for the contemporary elite must end. Reductions should be especially sharp for young traders like Polk, who are unlikely to have any realistic idea of the value of money.

It is the financial equivalent of going cold turkey. But as many addicts will attest, the most effective treatment starts by simply saying no.

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