Economy

How America's Obsession With Money Deadens Us

In a society that worships "one market under God," we are forced to be somewhat money-centric in order to survive. At what cost?

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A preoccupation with money is nothing new in our culture, but have Americans become even more “money-centric,” and does this deaden us, making us incapable of resisting injustices?

A money-centric society is one in which money is at the center of virtually all thoughts, decisions and activities. While capitalism certainly gives rise to money-centrism, any society in which individuals have little know-how and lack supportive community—and are thus totally dependent on money for their survival—will create a money-centric society. Such a society coerces even the non-greedy to focus on money at the expense of damn near everything else in order to survive.

Have We Become More Money-Centric?

Sociologist Robert Putnam reported in Bowling Alone (2000) that when American adults were asked in 1975 to identify the elements of "the good life,” 38 percent chose “a lot of money,” compared to 63 percent who chose “a lot of money” in 1996. Since then, from my experience, this focus on money has only increased. Both greed and fear make one more money-centric, and in recent years, it has become more socially acceptable to be greedy and increasingly commonplace to be financially insecure.

When I began my clinical psychology private practice nearly three decades ago, my clients who worked for major Cincinnati corporations such as Procter and Gamble felt secure in their employment, but that security began disappearing two decades ago. Nowadays, nearly everybody, even teachers and postal workers, lacks job security. Today, I see money worries, more than anything else, triggering panic attacks, depression, and alcohol abuse. Money discussions have even come to dominate family counseling sessions, where high school students increasingly talk about their fear of becoming financial losers, and parents fear their children will ruin their lives by accumulating student-loan debt while pursuing fields where there are few decent-paying jobs. Between my clients and my own money preoccupations, the dead shit of money routinely deadens me, especially when I lose my sense of humor about it.

It is difficult to maintain a sense of humor about all of this, so for most of us, having a stash of money feels increasingly important—and money accumulation has increasingly become the center of our lives.

In 1900, only 1 percent of Americans was in the stock market; by 1950, this had increased to only 4 percent; but by 2000, more than 50 percent of Americans were in the stock market. While some of these people merely have pensions that own shares on their behalf, many Americans have in fact chosen to invest in the stock market. How many of those people are investing their money in companies whose products they believe in? Almost none.

For those Americans not in the stock market and who are living from paycheck to paycheck or on public assistance, they also are assured by the state that it is quite okay to gamble where the odds are more stacked against them than in the stock market. Many state governments not only offer lotteries but advertise them heavily on television, radio, billboards, and with mass mailing coupons—and this today is socially acceptable.

Younger generations are increasingly told they won’t have job security in their working years or Social Security later on. So, while many young people would rather be gaining life experiences, they feel pressure early on to accumulate a large pile of cash.

When Did Greed Become Respectable?

Money has always been a big deal in America, but through much of history, the money-centrism of the greedy has not had the social acceptability that it has recently gained. For the non-elite, greed was seen as the practice of villains such as Charles Dickens’ money-obsessed Scrooge, a psychologically and spiritually sick man in need of conversion. As late as 1936, a sitting president of the United States running for reelection knew that that it was quite popular to blast the greedy, selfish elite:

We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred. I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

That was Franklin D. Roosevelt on Oct. 31, 1936. Contrast FDR’s speech with President Barack Obama’s response in an interview excerpted by Bloomberg Businessweek and the Wall Street Journal in February 2010. When asked about Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s $9 million bonus and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s $17 million bonus, Obama responded:

First of all, I know both those guys. They’re very savvy businessmen. And I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth. That’s part of the free market system. I do think that the compensation packages that we’ve seen over the last decade at least have not matched up always to performance...Listen, $17 million is an extraordinary amount of money. Of course, there are some baseball players who are making more than that who don’t get to the World Series either.

How did greed come to be so respectable? What Paul of Tarsus, in the first century after the death of Jesus, was to the dissemination and legitimization of Christianity, Ayn Rand, in the last half of the 20th century, was to the dissemination and legitimization of money-centrism and greed. Rand ends her novel Atlas Shrugged with this image of its hero John Galt: “He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.” Rand exhorted her followers to believe in what she called “radical capitalism,” and she lived—and even died—in radical money-centrism. At Rand’s funeral, in accordance with her specified arrangements, a six-foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign was placed near her casket.

Money-centrism, of course, has been caused by many other forces and perpetuated by many other people.

How Money-Centrism Deadens Us and Makes Us Incapable of Resistance

When one cares only about money, one neglects everything else necessary to build and maintain self-respect. Neglecting other aspects of our humanity results in destroying our integrity, and integrity is necessary for strength. And when one is willing to do whatever it takes to make money, one assumes others are acting similarly, which destroys trust and makes it impossible to create the solidarity necessary to successfully challenge illegitimate authorities.

Money-centrism is especially malevolent when it attacks societal forces that are potentially liberating. Much has been written about how spiritual revolts (such as those begun by Jesus and other rebels) eventually morph into organized religions, which are then driven by money and used by the elite as an “opiate of the masses.” The elite in religious hierarchies have routinely commercialized spirituality, and by so doing have reduced the power of spirituality as a potent force to take down the ruling elite.

But spirituality is not the only potentially rebellious force that has been destroyed by money-centrism. Commercializing any powerful idea, belief or emotion deadens its power. Even the rebellion of folk/protest music and rock-and-roll has been increasingly commercialized, resulting in a dissipation of actual rebellious energy.

In 1998, Bob Dylan and his son Jakob were paid $1 million to play for 15,000 employees of the Silicon Valley semiconductor company Applied Materials, and that’s not the only “corporate gig” on Dylan’s résumé. Next time you hear Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” how energizing will that be for you? And for quite some time, the aim of many rock-and-roll bands has been to exploit and commercialize the idea of rebellion. So, it should surprise no one that the Rolling Stones do corporate gigs, including one a decade ago in which they took in $2 million to entertain Pepsi bottlers in Hawaii.

Equally widespread and probably even more responsible for dissipating rebellious energy is when songs of perceived rebellious artists are used as background music in commercials used to propagandize listeners into associating their rebellious urges with consumer products. Dylan’s “Times They Are a-Changin’” has been used by accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand and by the Bank of Montreal; and the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” has been used by Microsoft. Of course it is unfair to pick on only Dylan and the Rolling Stones, but it’s simply too depressing for me to go through the entire list.

To defeat the elite, the rest of us need energy. Rebellion is a powerful idea, but when rebellion is used merely to attract an audience for financial profit, the idea itself becomes less powerful. So, whether it is spirituality, folk/protest music, or rock-and-roll, when rebellious energy is commercialized, that energy dissipates.

Spirituality, music, theater, cinema, and other arts can be revolutionary forces, but the gross commercialization of these has deadened their capacity to energize rebellion. So now damn near everything—not just organized religion—has become an “opiate of the masses.”

In a radically capitalist society that worships “one market under God” (as Thomas Frank called it), we are all forced to be somewhat money-centric in order to survive. No shame here. But since money is not alive, to the extent that we become radically money-centric and money is at the center of all of our thoughts, decisions, and activities, we are dead and incapable of any resistance to injustices.