America's obsession with wealth

One wonders why we hear so little about the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us. We live in a society where the gulf between the superrich and the rest of society grows ever wider. Many of us seem to be caught in the grip of "wealth-envy." Nowhere do we hear the opinion that extreme concentrations of wealth might actually undermine the values of the larger community. It creates an unequal tax burden and erodes individual purchasing power, to name a few effects.

On the contrary, we are bombarded with tales of wealth accumulation by the old rich, the newly rich, the young rich, the Internet rich, the venture-capital rich, and so on. Whether we admire them or resent them, the media present them as our new superheroes. What I cannot understand, however, is the deafening silence of our leaders. Why isn't anyone speaking out against this obscene new wealth?

The facts are staggering. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the richest 1 percent of Americans this year - about 2.7 million people - will earn as much as the poorest 100 million. Bill Gates alone has amassed $90 billion. Equally disturbing, the ratio of earnings of the average CEO to the average factory worker has exploded from 42 to 1 in 1980, to 419 to 1 in 1999. The great masses in our society will not be invited to play in this game except as spectators.

Should we be celebrating or mourning this new reality whereby more and more wealth is concentrated in fewer hands? Have we become so blinded by these breathtaking displays of wealth that we are unwilling or unable to engage in social dialogue about the wealth gap? It appears that unwittingly we have become vicarious participants in an orgy of greed.

Frankly, I am not surprised by our current obsession with individual wealth. It is shocking, however, that our leaders, spiritual and secular, do not seem to feel comfortable addressing it. Even our ministers, rabbis, and priests appear too frightened or confused to address this social phenomenon. Do they fear the loss of contributions to their own organizations, lest they speak out and be perceived as old-fashioned moralists, or anticapitalists who dare throw a wet blanket on the party?

Money in all its manifestations has always been the prime source of power, particularly in our economic system. It seems that now money has become nakedly and brashly enthroned as the new god, whose credo might well be "greed is good." Many will argue that the new wealth generates thousands of jobs, and that the new captains of industry are entitled to be generously remunerated for their contributions.

Let me be clear. Like many of us, I am an investor and I am not a socialist. I am not opposed to anyone making a buck, even a few hundred million bucks. I am, however, against these frightening disparities of wealth, and the unspoken assumption that this is "a good thing." It is not written in stone that individuals should have the right to unlimited wealth, as they do in the US. That right has definite social and economic consequences for the rest of us.

I am even naive enough to suggest that maybe our tax laws need to be rewritten. At the very least, we have promoted a system of rewards and values that urgently needs to be discussed and debated publicly. If our leaders cannot face the moral and practical consequences of these trends, how can the rest of us be expected to sober up and recover from wealth-envy? What will it take for us to wake up?

I am waiting for our ethical and moral leadership to express and model a little healthy outrage. In the current state of money madness, I fear that I will be waiting a long time.

*George D. Cohen is a psychotherapist in Berkely, Calif., and coauthor of 'How to Test and Improve Your Own Mental Health' (Prima Publishing, 1994).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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