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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:

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