I heard an Episcopal priest in Dallas say that the clothes and cars and gadgets we buy for ourselves are addictive, and they don’t make us happy. He was partly right, and partly wrong. Acquisitions do make us happy. That’s why they’re addictive. We get hooked on pleasure, not pain.
So why, aside from current economic constraints, should anybody resist being possessed by too many material possessions? And how many are too many, anyway? The answer, I believe, lies with Aristotle and the golden mean, the surest location of continuing human contentment. The golden mean to me means neither saving everything we earn nor spending every dollar we can borrow. It is a matter of not going too far, and that’s a different measurement for different people. A $300 dinner for two at Fearing’s might be dangerously excessive for some but an acceptable splurge for others. We all know, however, when we have overdone it, and it makes us feel a little silly and out of control, enthralled by manic spending.
The critical problem at the moment is institutions, some of whose leaders have been so pathologically, permanently manic that they have found it impossible to imagine a life governed by the golden mean, with generous salaries and rising net worth if the stock goes up, but without fantastic bonuses that would have astonished Aristotle, not to mention the great bankers instrumental in building Dallas, such as Jim Aston and Dewey Presley.
Some have argued that without tens of millions of dollars a year, the CEOs of banks and other firms might leave. How horrible would that be? What would happen to those organizations if the guys who ran them over the edge of a cliff should leave? Couldn’t younger people, even women, willing to work for a reasonable return, be elevated from within to save the situation? It’s worth a try.
Even so, the unhappy truth is that some of these brands are so tainted they may never be able to sell themselves again. A few days ago, I saw Citigroup give away passport cases in the Admiral’s Club of American Airlines. The boxes in the trash nearby indicated that some of the cases had been taken, but more remained than might have been expected for a freebee. Some, I suspect, felt that anything with Citi on it might be bad luck. Merrill Lynch could be in the same situation.
Then there’s the case of the banks under investigation for allegedly colluding to fix the bids on municipal bonds. Also the banks who have contracted with universities to sell credit cards to their students and alums, while the campuses supply the lists and collect a royalty on every credit card sold. That is not criminal, as bilking cities in their bond sales surely is, but isn’t it distasteful nonetheless?
And what of the financial people who led their clients to invest with Bernie Madoff, accused of treachery that added up to a $50 billion swindle? Will they be like the Baathists in Iraq, contaminated by association, unable to function successfully, much less faithfully, in finance again ? What happened to the golden mean when those clients, many of them well off, were panting so fitfully after higher and higher returns that they failed to notice the drastic unlikelihood of 12 percent a year?
It will take a lot of doing to get back to the golden mean in America, but our survival, personally and as a nation, depends upon it.