The Pursuit of Wealth

By Tim Duy · December 21, 2008: An unusually quiet Sunday morning – the kids are with their grandparents, leaving me with a chance to think of something beyond the immediate economic data. This morning that meant a stream of thoughts triggered by Paul Krugman’s most recent op-ed, particularly this:

Most of all, the vast riches being earned — or maybe that should be “earned” — in our bloated financial industry undermined our sense of reality and degraded our judgment.

Think of the way almost everyone important missed the warning signs of an impending crisis. How was that possible? How, for example, could Alan Greenspan have declared, just a few years ago, that “the financial system as a whole has become more resilient” — thanks to derivatives, no less? The answer, I believe, is that there’s an innate tendency on the part of even the elite to idolize men who are making a lot of money, and assume that they know what they’re doing.

In this paragraph, Krugman sounds less like an economist and more like a philosopher. But I am not complaining in the least; economists lost a sense of the essential humanity of their topic when they gravitated down a path of sanitized mathematical and statistical methodology. Indeed, I often think that economists share no small blame for our current economic challenges, as the profession provided the intellectual basis for free markets but often failed to place that ideology in a larger social perspective. It is as if the profession followed the path of The Wealth of Nations but forgot The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The latter is Adam Smith’s philosophical tome, and if you can only read one of these two, it is my recommendation. I suspect that Krugman had TMS in mind when he wrote the above paragraphs. An excerpt from Smith:

In equal degrees of merit there is scarce any man who does not respect more the rich and the great, than the poor and the humble. With most men the presumption and vanity of the former are much more admired, than the real and solid merit of the latter. It is scarce agreeable to good morals, or even to good language, perhaps, to say, that mere wealth and greatness, abstracted from merit and virtue, deserve our respect. We must acknowledge, however, that they almost constantly obtain it; and that they may, therefore, be considered as, in some respects, the natural objects of it. Those exalted stations may, no doubt, be completely degraded by vice and folly. But the vice and folly must be very great, before they can operate this complete degradation. The profligacy of a man of fashion is looked upon with much less contempt and aversion, than that of a man of meaner condition. In the latter, a single transgression of the rules of temperance and propriety, is commonly more resented, than the constant and avowed contempt of them ever is in the former.

According to Smith, it is human nature to admire the rich, even when we shouldn’t, a mistake that Krugman argues led us to where we are today. Smith offers much more detail; an online version can be found here. For those with a busy schedule, a good place to start is Robert Heilbroner’s The Essential Adam Smith; it is one of the books I assign when I teach history of economic thought.

Krugman also laments the lost opportunities attributable to the pursuit of wealth:

Meanwhile, how much has our nation’s future been damaged by the magnetic pull of quick personal wealth, which for years has drawn many of our best and brightest young people into investment banking, at the expense of science, public service and just about everything else?

Which makes me think of another in the canon of Western culture, the 1987 movie Wall Street. A memorable line from the final scene:

Carl Fox: Stop going for the easy buck and start producing something with your life. Create, instead of living off the buying and selling of others.

For an interesting recent take on the draw of Wall Street and easy money and how it has warped career choices, see Michael Lewis in Bloomberg:

What Wall Street did so well, for so long, was to give people jobs that they could pass off to themselves as well as others as callings. Such was their exalted social and financial status: Wall Street jobs made people feel special without actually having to be special. You never really had to explain why you were doing it — even if you should have.

Readers’ responses to Lewis can be found here. One particularly troubling comment:

I know why I am in finance — partly because I enjoy the action and the excitement of life on the trading desk and also because I know what I want.

I want private school for my kids, I want my kids to go to a better university than Michigan, I want the Porsche S-1 one day, I want the apartment in the city and the summer home and yes, I want to marry a beautiful woman who shares certain values.

None of the above happens if you are a broke high school math teacher or a mediocre screenwriter.

From Smith:

The poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, when he begins to look around him, admires the condition of the rich. He finds the cottage of his father too small for his accommodation, and fancies he should be lodged more at his ease in a palace. He is displeased with being obliged to walk a-foot, or to endure the fatigue of riding on horseback. He sees his superiors carried about in machines, and imagines that in one of these he could travel with less inconveniency. He feels himself naturally indolent, and willing to serve himself with his own hands as little as possible; and judges, that a numerous retinue of servants would save him from a great deal of trouble. He thinks if he had attained all these, he would sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquillity of his situation. He is enchanted with the distant idea of this felicity. It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself for ever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness. To obtain the conveniences which these afford, he submits in the first year, nay in the first month of his application, to more fatigue of body and more uneasiness of mind than he could have suffered through the whole of his life from the want of them. He studies to distinguish himself in some laborious profession. With the most unrelenting industry he labours night and day to acquire talents superior to all his competitors. He endeavours next to bring those talents into public view, and with equal assiduity solicits every opportunity of employment. For this purpose he makes his court to all mankind; he serves those whom he hates, and is obsequious to those whom he despises. Through the whole of his life he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquillity that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it. It is then, in the last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil and diseases, his mind galled and ruffled by the memory of a thousand injuries and disappointments which he imagines he has met with from the injustice of his enemies, or from the perfidy and ingratitude of his friends, that he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility, no more adapted for procuring ease of body or tranquillity of mind than the tweezer-cases of the lover of toys; and like them too, more troublesome to the person who carries them about with him than all the advantages they can afford him are commodious. … But in the languor of disease and the weariness of old age, the pleasures of the vain and empty distinctions of greatness disappear. To one, in this situation, they are no longer capable of recommending those toilsome pursuits in which they had formerly engaged him. In his heart he curses ambition, and vainly regrets the ease and the indolence of youth, pleasures which are fled forever, and which he has foolishly sacrificed for what, when he has got it, can afford him no real satisfaction. In this miserable aspect does greatness appear to every man when reduced either by spleen or disease to observe with attention his own situation, and to consider what it is that is really wanting to his happiness. Power and riches appear then to be, what they are, enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniencies to the body, consisting of springs the most nice and delicate, which must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and which in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor. They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labour of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which while they stand, though they may save him from some smaller inconveniencies, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to diseases, to danger, and to death.

Smith, in my opinion, places too much weight on the sufferings of the rich (or the ease of tranquility of the poor – he appears to be justifying the extent of inequality existing in a market system). Still, his underlying point regarding the ultimate rewards of the pursuit of wealth may be less than imagined. And, as Krugman suggests, that pursuit can yield enormous costs not just for the individual, but for society as a whole.

About Mark Thoma 243 Articles

Affiliation: University of Oregon

Mark Thoma is a member of the Economics Department at the University of Oregon. He joined the UO faculty in 1987 and served as head of the Economics Department for five years. His research examines the effects that changes in monetary policy have on inflation, output, unemployment, interest rates and other macroeconomic variables with a focus on asymmetries in the response of these variables to policy changes, and on changes in the relationship between policy and the economy over time. He has also conducted research in other areas such as the relationship between the political party in power, and macroeconomic outcomes and using macroeconomic tools to predict transportation flows. He received his doctorate from Washington State University.

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