“Giv’em a yacht! Giv’em a Palace! Send ‘em to Reno and give them a new wife when they want it, if that’s what they want. But when they’ve got everything on God’s loving earth that they can eat and they can wear and they can live in, and all that their children can live in and wear and eat, and all of their children’s children can use, then we’ve got to call Mr. Morgan and Mr. Mellon an Mr. Rockefeller back and say, come back here, put that stuff back on this table here that you took away from here that you don’t need. Leave something else for the American people to consume.” – Huey P. Long
The above quote by Louisiana senator and governor Huey P. Long illustrates some of the excessive wealth and income inequality that we have seen in history of this country, at least since the beginning of the industrial age.
What drives these individuals to want more money than they or their families can possibly use? If Morgan, Rockefeller, Gates, Soros, Koch, Buffet, Walton, Trump, Zuckerberg, etc. were accumulating any other object than money, then we would call them hoarders. “Robbed and fur’d gown hide all,” as King Lear says. Hoarding is a mental disorder.
I should first give credit to some of these individuals, both past and present, for their philanthropy. Many of them donate a large portion of their wealth to charities. Many of the wealthiest people from 19th century Boston or New York created educational institutions, public libraries, museums, etc.
In 2012, according to Forbes, Bill Gates and his wife donated about $2 billion, which was about 2.6% of their wealth at the time. By comparison, the Walton family donated $432 million, which sounds like a lot, but it was only 0.3% of their wealth. More recently Mark Zuckerberg is giving away 99% of his Facebook shares to charity. Thus, some are able to some of some of that, which they so desperately wish to possess.
I found an interesting description of the mind of an excessively wealthy person from a book entitled The Proper Bostonians by Cleveland Amory. The information comes from diary entries from William Appleton, one of the wealthiest merchants, bankers and shipbuilders in 19th century Boston. Amory says of Appleton, “Appleton loves money. He loves to make it and, above all, he loves to save it.” I list some of the entries below:
- “My mind is very much bent on making money, more than securing temporal friends or lasting peace.” The rest of the entry seems to imply that at large parties, he spends most of his time thinking about how to make money, missing out on all the fun.
- “I feel that I am quite eaten up with business; while in Church, my mind with all the exertion I endeavoured to make, was flying from City to City, from Ship to Ship and from Speculation to Speculation.”
- “I am so much excited by my business concerns that I have very little pleasure.”
- “My property has increased every year since I’ve been in business except the year 1829. . . . My success in business is uncommon, no man in Boston of the Age, I am forty-five, has made as much, and only one, David Sears, possesses as much probably.”
- To paraphrase another entry, Appleton is aware that he has done little to help anyone outside of himself and his immediate family. That while he hopes to “promote the cause of religion” that he has been too “engrossed in the cares of this Word, a desire to increase a fortune now large, more than six hundred Thousand dollars and one Hundred times more than I expected at twenty years old ever to possess”
- On writing about his son’s death, “His death changed most of my plans of business.”
- “…attended St. Paul’s Church, Communion; regret much to find myself so much agitated as to the business of the past week that I could not keep my mind from it during the devotions of the day.”
- “I must be busy. I don’t know how to stop…I can’t help seeing openings for profit, neither can I help availing of them. I pray God to keep me from being avaricious, and proud of my success; but I cannot bear the shame of falling below my own powers and being left behind by those who are not my equals.”
- Lastly, apparently his last breaths was devoted to the “disposition of the sum of five thousand dollars.”
Appleton’s mind is reflective of the kind of mind that brings great personal monetary success in a capitalistic society. And while this might be the case, it is certainly not healthy.
Appleton is only one example, and some may differ starkly from him, but Appleton seems reflective of the personal turmoil that goes on in the heads of some wealthy people. On another note, I wager that sociopaths, who are mostly incapable of feeling guilty, are over-represented in the millionaire and billionaire class.
I’ll now re-ask the title question: Is greed a sign of mental illness? That is similar to hoarding?
I’ll now ask the question: Should this specific type of mental illness represent the average American citizen as US Rep, Senator, Judge, Governor or as a US President? Can we possibly expect the common concerns of American people to be addressed adequately by the richest Americans?
I’ll then ask this question: Should this specific type of mental illness be among the largest employers in America? Can workers expect fair pay and other fair treatment when the executive decisions are made by people who obsessively think about increasing profit? As consumers, can we expect the best and healthiest products, when some individuals may be trying to cut corners for profit?
Next question: Are these individuals a necessary evil, great good, or a general nuisance to our capitalistic society?
This leads me to a last question (although, there are many others): Can we and/or should we do anything to prevent people with this sort of hoarding-like mental illness from having too much control over American’s lives?
In conclusion, I do not wish to vilify the rich, since I think only a portion of wealthy Americans are of the Appleton, Walton and Koch variety. Many are similar to Gates, Buffett and Zuckerberg, who donate enough to avoid being labeled as a hoarder.
Most likely, rather than punishing wealth, we need to figure out ways to curb their political powers. Let them be rich, or let them be in politics, but don’t let them do both. As former Progressive Republican senator Robert La Follette said, “I do not wish to smash corporations, but to drive them out of politics.” I think then, and only then, can the Average American have a country that is of the people, by the people and for the people.
I’d like to hear your feedback on this, even if you strongly disagree with me.