What Is the Economy For, Anyway?

What Is the Economy For, Anyway? October 21, 2015

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Consumerism Gone Wild. Read other perspectives here.

Money

The Guardian ran a column on a group of unsung heroes: the therapists to the super-rich, whose job it is to help their clients deal with the stress and strain of having all that money. According to one of them, Clay Cockrell:

“I shifted toward it naturally,” he said of his becoming an expert in wealth therapy. “We are trained to have empathy, no judgment and so many of the uber wealthy – the 1% of the 1% – they feel that their problems are really not problems. But they are. A lot of therapists do not give enough weight to their issues.”

Or as another “wealth psychologist” says:

“You can come up with lot of words and sayings about inheritors, not one of them is positive: spoiled brat, born with a silver spoon in their mouth, trust fund babies, all these things… I am not necessarily comparing it to what people of color have to go through, but… it really is making value judgment about a particular group of people as a whole.”

This privileged obliviousness is easy to mock. (As Russell Glasser pointed out, these therapists have the same job as a character in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide who tells rich people it’s OK to be rich for a living.) But in this post, I want to take a different tack.

The complaints of the rich may sound out of touch, but that doesn’t mean the underlying problems aren’t real. The rich are human beings like the rest of us; of course they suffer from the same problems of loneliness, depression and ennui. (A case in point is Markus “Notch” Persson, who’s spoken about how depressing it is to be a billionaire.) Although they don’t have to worry about material deprivation, they do incur a whole new set of problems that the poor and the merely comfortable don’t have to deal with. Chief among them is the (often entirely rational) suspicion that the people in your life don’t like or care about you for who you are, but are merely attracted to your wealth and power. As I wrote in one of my Atlas Shrugged posts, psychological experiments can reproduce this social distancing effect, in which wealthy people are both less likely to seek help and less likely to receive it.

And, ironically, wealth itself turns out not to compensate for this at all! Once you have enough money to provide for day-to-day needs, the accumulation of additional money and possessions doesn’t produce lasting improvements in happiness. You can almost pity the people who worked so long and so hard to claw their way up to the top, only to realize that it didn’t improve their lives as they’d hoped and dreamed it would.

There are also some rich, privileged people whose grueling, backbreaking work schedules do them undeniable harm. This has been in the news after a rash of overwork-related deaths on Wall Street, not to mention the brutal wringing-out of workers at top law firms or bleeding-edge tech companies like Amazon.

Even disregarding the admittedly rare deaths, I can only imagine what kind of long-term harm these people are causing themselves by shouldering so much stress. There are poor people who work just as hard because they have no choice, I realize; but in the case of the rich, there’s an extra tragic irony in that it’s entirely self-willed. These talented, well-educated people could live and work and be comfortable almost anywhere, and yet they wear themselves away to nothing chasing that nigh-unattainable mirage.

All this leads me to ask: What is the economy for, anyway? Why do we have such a thing, and what purpose do we want it to serve?

The grand Prisoner’s-Dilemma-style paradox is that millions of people are all making decisions that seem individually rational. But what they add up to in aggregate is an economy that’s the worst of all worlds: the poor are deprived, the rich are miserable. The selfish, endless hunger for more, more, more takes basic goods away from those who sorely need them, while not making the ones who reap the spoils any happier.

The economy is, or is supposed to be, how we distribute the fruits of society’s productivity so as to benefit everyone. If it’s not making most of us happier, more comfortable or more secure, then it’s not serving its purpose. We ought to stop and take stock of the bigger picture every so often, to see whether we should do anything differently. We’ll have to do this eventually, as we approach closer to post-work economy, and we can save ourselves a lot of trouble if we start early.

But an individual can do this reevaluation just as well as a society. If your wealth has become isolating or a burden, may I suggest giving it away? It’s likely to bring much more happiness to others than you could get out of it, and the knowledge that you’ve been of service to others is likely to improve your own happiness in the bargain. If you have to quit a high-stress, high-pressure job to focus on philanthropy, so much the better. This doesn’t even require any real sacrifice from the giver, since it takes far less money than most people think to live a fulfilling life. To me, that sounds like a far better and more purposeful existence than participating in an endless rat race in which the winners are just as unhappy as the losers.

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