Millionaires, Billionaires, and the Rest

Long ago, when I was growing up in post WWII America, a “millionaire” was a very rich person. What could he possibly want that he couldn’t buy?

Many of us took some comfort from the fact that, as a popular song of the day put it, “the best things in life are free.” If we couldn’t buy a fancy car, a “mansion,” a yacht, or a country “estate,” we could aspire to the simpler and cheaper pleasures of ordinary life: the love of our families, a beautiful day, grass, trees and flowers. “The moon belongs to everyone,” went the song, even to the rich.

But that no longer seems to be the case. In an age of extreme and growing disparities of wealth, it is getting harder and harder to see how the overwhelming advantages and privileges of the wealthy, the poverty and suffering of the poor, and the shrinking middle classes all fit together. According to Forbes there are 1,426 billionaires in the world and their wealth totals, collectively, $5.4 trillion. No one bothers to count millionaires, there are so many, but on the other hand, there are eloquent if understated statistics on the poor and unemployed.

What does this do to us all?

Wealth has exploded our social space so we no longer see the connections or feel the links between us, except through highly mediated and manipulated images. Not only do we not inhabit the same spaces, we don’t follow the same rules.

Andrew Ross Sorkin recently reported in The New York Times on a new study showing that there are also fewer moral scruples among those who lead our corporations. Among 250 industry insiders included in the study, “traders, portfolio managers, investment bankers, hedge fund professionals, financial analysts, investment advisers, among others — 23 percent said that ‘they had observed or had firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace.’”

And they saw it as built into our system: “26 percent of respondents said they ‘believed the compensation plans or bonus structures in place at their companies incentivize employees to compromise ethical standards or violate the law.’” As a result, many make it clear that violations go unreported, meaning, of course, that they are condoned and covered up. (See “On Wall St., a Culture of Greed Won’t Let Go.”)

Most of us lack the incentives and the opportunities to cheat on such a scale. We read about the scandals that are detected and prosecuted, and we find little surprising in the results of the survey, apart, perhaps, from the frankness of the opinions expressed.

The rest of us may feel a surge of anger when hearing about a new case of insider trading, bribery, or political corruption, but typically we settle into a kind of passivity and absence of hope. I don’t mean “hopelessness,” but more a sense of what’s the point? If you are inside a system where possibilities are skewed, why try? Instead, I think, we tend to immerse ourselves in our increasingly sophisticated digital gadgets and let our minds drift away.

Something also happens to the emotions that are suppressed. As a psychoanalyst I have a lot of thoughts about what that must be. But I do know that they go someplace – and disconnected from their source they continue to haunt us.